If you’ve been on the internet lately, you’ve probably noticed that infographic maps are quite fashionable these days. Whether its November’s polling predictions or where the nation’s best burritos are located, one thing is clear: people like to visualize information.

Mapping has been used for quite some time to encourage urbanites to connect with the nature around us. In addition to digital trail maps, cities are getting creative with the way they promote nature through mapping. Check out San Francisco’s Nature in the City map for an example of how one city is educating its citizens about natural heritage. Still other organizations like the The Cornell Lab of Ornithology promote citizen science with their online mapping tool, YardMap, which encourages people to analyze bird habitats in their own backyard. And while this is all very exciting, I wonder, what about mapping information that is outside the visual realm? What about sound?

Studies have shown that exposure to natural soundscapes delivers a wide variety of health benefits including improved recovery[i], reduced anxiety[ii], and pain alleviation[iii]. These studies only add to the mountain of evidence that shows that frequent exposure to nature is crucially important to our quality of life. But how do we find natural soundscapes in our cities? Perhaps more importantly, how can we account for these assets and work to protect and enhance them?

Luckily, some innovative folks around the globe have created an online tool called a soundmap. These auditory maps contain geotagged sound clips that range from passing trains to hopping kangaroos. Some focus solely on natural soundscapes while others feature every instrument of the urban orchestra. Trickling streams, roaring highways, and chirping field crickets along a railroad track can all be heard with the simple click of a pin on one of these maps.

New York, New Orleans, and Montreal are three North American cities that have developed quite impressive soundmaps with varying applications. Some serve as mixed-media art pieces, others are used to document noise pollution. The London Sound Survey even includes historical sound clips so that we can examine how the urban soundscape is changing over time. And while all slightly different in design and application, they all provide a chance to orient ourselves with the sounds around us. This orientation not only breeds spatial awareness but also encourages discovery, engagement, dialog, and ultimately, stewardship of our urban natural soundscapes.

Because many soundmaps are produced using crowd sourced data, more and more people are increasingly included in the conversation about the value and preservation of natural soundscapes in urban centers. Whether it is the sound of a creek running behind your house or birds chirping on the telephone wires outside your office window, sounds surround us, and the natural ones improve our quality of life. Soundmaps provide an opportunity to explore a new dimension of our cities, to think about sound as an asset, and to foster a sense of place through sounds.

If you’re like me and live in a city that has not created a soundmap, you’re not quite out of luck. Several online tools exist to create your own soundmap using your smart phone. While several exist, I personally tried UMapper.com and found it to not only be really easy, but also addictingly fun. Whether you’re a teacher, city official, or simply a curious citizen, I invite you to explore soundmapping as yet another tool to understand and immerse yourself in the complex, multi-dimensional natural beauty that surrounds us all.

 Post by Briana Bergstrom

[i] Alvarsson J, Wiens S., and Nilsson M. “Stress and recovery during exposure to nature sounds and environmental noise.” Int. J Environ Res Public Health, 2010 (7) 1036-106.

[ii] Aghaie, Bahman; Rejeh, Nahid; Heravi-Karimooi, Majideh; Ebadi, Abbas; Moradian, Seyed Tayeb; Vaismoradi, Mojtaba; Jasper, Melanie. “Effect of nature-based sound therapy on agitation and anxiety in coronary artery bypass graft patients during the weaning of mechanical ventilation: A randomised clinical trial.” International Journal of Nursing Studies Volume 51, Issue 4 (April 2014): 526-538

[iii] Anderson, Patricia G.; Bauer, Brent A.; Brekke, Karen M.; Cutshall, Susanne M.; Kelly, Ryan F.; Messner, Penny K.; Olney, Tammy L.; Prinsen, Sharon K.; Sundt, Thoralf M., III; Wentwoth, Laura J. “Effect of the combination of music and nature sounds on pain and anxiety in cardiac surgical patients: a randomized study.” Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 17.4 (July 1, 2011): 16-23.