How urban soundscapes affect humans and wildlife — and what may have changed in the hush of lockdown


Kurt Iveson, University of Sydney and Dieter Hochuli, University of SydneyThe dull roar of traffic, the barking of dogs in backyards and the screeching of cockatoos at dusk. The shattering of early morning quiet by the first plane overhead or the garbage truck on its rounds. The squealed delights and occasional fights of a children’s playground.

These sounds and many more create what Canadian composer R Murray Schafer famously called a “soundscape”. Schafer, who passed away last month, helped us realise we experience cities with our ears as well as our eyes.

In recent years, studies have confirmed these soundscapes affect the well-being of urban inhabitants — both human and non-human. But with much of the country back under lockdown, urban soundscapes have changed, sometimes bringing delight, but sometimes causing new distress.

So let’s take a moment to consider how soundscapes influence our lives, and the lives of urban wildlife.

When sounds become ‘noise’

Whether it’s housemates, traffic, or construction, we tend to respond to many urban sounds by defining them as “noise”, and try to shut them out. We do this using a range of techniques and technologies: building regulations on soundproofing, controls on the times for certain activities like construction, and planning measures.

But noise mapping efforts show such regulations tend to produce uneven urban soundscapes — some people are more exposed to loud or annoying sounds than others.

Housing quality is a major factor here, and noise problems are likely exacerbated under lockdown. A recent study of pandemic housing inequality in Sydney found increased exposure to noise during lockdown is significantly contributing to poor well-being.

For example, sounds travelling across internal and external walls of apartments were frequently a source of tension in pre-pandemic times. Now, with so many more people spending more time at home, these domestic sounds inevitably increase.




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It’s not just humans whose lives are disrupted by city noise, as many animals use sound to communicate.

The ever-vigilant New Holland honeyeaters of Australian cities use their alarm calls to warn their friends and neighbours of danger, while the iconic chorus of banjo frogs in wetlands are the hopeful calls of males seeking mates.

This is the sound a banjo frog makes.

Noisy environments can dramatically change how these animals behave. In some cases, animals adapt to their noisy environment. Some frogs, for example, overcome traffic noise disrupting their sex lives by calling at a higher pitch. Likewise, populations of bow-winged grasshoppers in Germany exposed to road noise sing at higher frequencies than those living in quieter areas.

For other animals, such as microbats in England, disruptive noise changes how they forage and move around their environments.




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In extreme cases, these human-associated noises can drive animals away from their homes, as the disruptions to their lives becomes untenable.

Urban black-tufted marmosets in Brazil have been shown to avoid areas with abundant food where noise may interfere with their vocal communication. And research shows intruding noise in stopovers for migratory birds in the United States reduces their diversity by 25%, with some species avoiding the stopovers altogether.

Black-tufted marmosets in Brazil avoid noisy habitats even when there’s plenty of food.
Shutterstock

A new quiet?

The soundscape of cities in lockdown can be dramatically different from what we have come to accept as normal.

First, there are new noises. For example, in Sydney’s areas of concern subject to tighter lockdown restrictions, people are living with the frequent intrusive noise of police helicopters patrolling their neighbourhoods, making announcements over loudspeakers about compliance.

But in other cases, as our movements and activities are restricted, some city sounds associated with a negative impact on well-being are significantly reduced. People who live near major roads, aircraft flight paths, or construction sites will certainly be noticing the quiet as road traffic is greatly reduced and non-essential construction is paused.

But of course, while this silence might be golden for some, for others the sound of silence is the sound of lost work and income. This quietude may even be considered as unwelcome or even eerie — the sonic signature of isolation, confinement and loss.

The bow-winged grasshopper adapts to noisy soundscapes by singing at higher frequencies.
Quartl/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Just as many animals adapt to or avoid noisy urban environments, there is a chance many will respond to this natural experiment playing out. Quieter urban environments may see the return of some of our more noise sensitive species, but this depends on the species.

The Brazilian marmosets mentioned earlier didn’t return to those locations even during quieter times, suggesting the noise left a disruptive legacy on their habitat choice, well after it was experienced. On the other hand, other experiments show some species of birds rapidly returned to sites after noise was removed from the landscape.




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While it’s too early to confirm any early speculation about nature returning to quieter urban environments during lockdown, there is compelling evidence many people will benefit from engaging with local nature more actively than they did before.

Birdwatching increased tenfold in lockdown last year.
Matthew Willimott/Unsplash

Many more Australians are acting as urban field naturalists. Birdwatching, for example, increased tenfold in lockdown last year.

It’s clear people are seeing novelty and wonder in animals and plants that have survived and even thrived in our cities right beneath our noses the whole time. Our increased use of local greenspace during the pandemic has created new opportunities to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Rethinking post-pandemic soundscapes

What might we learn from this natural experiment about the soundscapes we take for granted and the soundscapes we actually want?

This is an invitation to think about whether we ought to do more to control sounds we consider “noise”. Yes, decibel levels of activities like car and air traffic matter. But it’s also an opportunity to think beyond controlling sounds, and consider how we might create soundscapes to enhance human and non-human well-being. This is easier said than done, given there’s no universal measure of what sounds give pleasure and what sounds are perceived as noise.

This aligns with the growing body of evidence on the need to reduce noise pollution and protect biodiversity when planning and managing our cities.

Like just about every other dimension of urban life, envisioning and creating an improved urban soundscape requires careful attention to spatial inequality and diversity – including of species – and a capacity to work through our differences in a fair and just way.




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The Conversation


Kurt Iveson, Associate Professor of Urban Geography and Research Lead, Sydney Policy Lab, University of Sydney and Dieter Hochuli, Professor, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

When it comes to preparing for disaster there are 4 distinct types of people. Which one are you?


Darren Pateman/AAP

Agathe Tiana Randrianarisoa, RMIT University and John Richardson, The University of MelbourneImagine it’s summer in Australia and a bushfire is bearing down on your suburb. Are you the pragmatic type – you’ve swapped phone numbers with the neighbours, photocopied your ID and have your emergency plan at the ready? Or are you the sentimental type – you’ve backed up the family photos but forgotten to insure the house, or don’t have an evacuation plan for the cat?

Our research out today shows when it comes to getting ready for disasters, there are four types of people. And this matters, because good disaster preparedness doesn’t just help people during and immediately after a disaster – it can also mean a quicker recovery.

The research, commissioned by Australian Red Cross, examined the experiences of 165 people who lived through a disaster such as fire and flood between 2008 and 2019. We identified a number of steps people wished they’d taken to prepare for disaster, such as protecting sentimental items, planning where the family should meet if separated and better managing stress.

The Black Summer bushfires, this year’s New South Wales floods, the storms around Melbourne and even COVID-19 remind us how disasters can disrupt people’s lives. Hopefully, examining the hard-won lessons of those who’ve lived through the worst life can throw at us will help individuals and communities better prepare and recover from these events.

man, woman and two children in blankets
Examining the hard-won lessons of those who’ve lived through disaster will help others prepare.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Our key findings

The survey questions focused on preparedness actions people took before a disaster, their experience of a disaster and recovery.

Participants were 18 years or older and had experienced a disaster between January 2008 and January 2019. This allowed time for people to experience the challenges and complexity of the recovery process.

Among our key findings were:

  • feeling prepared leads to a reduction in stress when dealing with the recovery process. And the less people are stressed, the better their recovery up to ten years after a disaster.
  • generally, the more people do to get prepared, the more they feel prepared. However, one in five respondents who reported not feeling prepared had undertaken actions that should have made them feel prepared. And 3% said they were prepared when they hadn’t undertaken any action, which mostly comes from the lack of knowledge of the most efficient preparedness actions.
  • the source of advice matters. More of those who received preparedness advice from Australian Red Cross – either directly or through its Get Ready app – had recovered. Those who had no preparedness training or received advice from family or friends were least likely to report having felt in control during the emergency.



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man gathers leaves
The research found disaster preparedness, such as clearing fire risk around the home, can be linked to recovery.
Dominica Sanda/AAP

3 ways to prepare

Three distinct groups of preparation actions emerged, which we outline below.

Protect my personal matters:

  • develop strategies to manage stress levels
  • protect or back up items of sentimental value
  • make copies and protect important documents such as identification papers, wills, financial documents
  • make plans for reunification of family if separated during an emergency.

Build my readiness:

  • identify sources of information to help prepare for and respond to an emergency
  • find out what hazards might affect their home and plan for them
  • use preparedness materials such as bushfire survival plans.

Be pragmatic:

  • make a plan for pets/livestock/animals
  • swap phone numbers with neighbours
  • take out property insurance.

Those who had taken action to prepare for disaster were asked what other actions they wished they’d taken. The top answer was having copies of important documents, such as ID and financial papers, that are potentially complicated to replicate and may be needed during recovery.

The full range of answers is below:



Which preparedness type are you?

Our research showed four types of persona emerged in terms of preparing for a disaster. Hopefully, identifying these groups means preparedness messaging can in future be customised, based on people’s characteristics.

Have a look at the graphic below – is there a type you identify with the most?


The Conversation/author provided data, CC BY-ND

Recovery is complex

Our survey asked if people felt they had recovered from the disaster. Importantly, we did not propose a standard definition of recovery, which allowed respondents to define their recovery in their own way. We then sought to determine how a person’s disaster preparation affected recovery.

Nearly 18% of respondents said they had not recovered at the time of the survey. Surprisingly, 86% of those said they took action to get prepared (compared to 76% of those who had recovered). But those who had not recovered were more likely to feel their preparation actions were not enough. Importantly, 86% also experienced high levels of stress during the recovery, compared to 60% who had already recovered at the time of the survey.

Interestingly, the proportion of respondents who found the recovery process slightly stressful, somewhat stressful or extremely stressful are comparable (15%, 16% and 16% respectively). However, four out of ten respondents reported high levels of stress during the recovery.

What’s more, a greater proportion of those who had not yet recovered required government assistance after the disaster (71%), relative to those who felt they had recovered (38%).

In the group of those not yet recovered, people earning less than A$52,000 a year were over-represented.




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children rake branches
Disaster preparedness advice should be tailored to the needs of those receiving it.
Dan Peled/AAP

Ready for anything

Our research shows being prepared can help reduce the long-term impacts of a disaster. The level of disaster preparedness in the Australian population is traditionally low, and so it’s important to demonstrate the benefits to ensure more people get ready for emergencies.

Preparedness programs should have a greater focus on preparing for the long-term impacts of a disaster. And these programs should differ based on people’s characteristics and they type of preparation support they need, particularly focusing on those who have less capacity to prepare and recover from the disruption of disaster.


This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. It is supported by a philanthropic grant from the Paul Ramsay Foundation. Read the rest of the stories here.The Conversation

Agathe Tiana Randrianarisoa, PhD student and Senior Researcher, RMIT University and John Richardson, Honorary Fellow, Child and Community Wellbeing Unit, Beyond Bushfires Research Program, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.