Over the past several years cities have undergone a profound transformation in how they share information about their natural resources. For decades, maps and nature guides produced by cities facilitated the exploration of urban trails, parklands, and other natural assets that exist within the urban boundary (Check out San Francisco’s Nature in the City map for an example of how one city is educating its residents about urban natural history). These maps have enhanced urbanites’ ability to both discover and enjoy their cities’ sometimes hidden green infrastructure, connecting city dwellers to the nature around them in the most useful of ways.

With the proliferation of technology and web-based information sharing, many cities and organizations are becoming more creative with the way they promote ‘urban nature’ through interactive, web-accessible nature maps.  Organizations like the The Cornell Lab of Ornithology engage urbanites in citizen science with their online mapping tool, YardMap, which encourages people to analyze bird habitats in their own backyard. And while these maps represent exciting innovations, some cities have taken things a step further by exploring a simple question: what about mapping natural resources 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 (1), reduced anxiety (2), and pain alleviation (3). These studies only add to the mountain of evidence showing 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 world have created a new online tool called a ‘soundmap’ that may help in this endeavor. These auditory maps contain geotagged sound clips that range from passing trains to hopping kangaroos. Some focus solely on natural soundscapes while others consider 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.

Recording of the ‘Heart of the Rainforest’ in IndonesiaImage Source: www.naturesoundmap.com
Recording of the ‘Heart of the Rainforest’ in Indonesia
Image Source: www.naturesoundmap.com

New YorkNew Orleans, and Montreal are three North American cities that have developed quite impressive soundmaps with widely 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, each of these maps provides a chance to orient ourselves with the sounds around us. This orientation not only fosters spatial awareness but also encourages discovery, engagement, dialog, and ultimately, stewardship of our urban natural soundscapes.

Montreal SoundmapImage Source: www.montrealsoundmap.org
Montreal Soundmap
Image Source: www.montrealsoundmap.org

Because many soundmaps are produced using crowd sourcing, 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 these sounds in a new way; to foster a sense of place through sound.

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 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 beauty that surrounds us all.

Post By Briana Bergstrom

1. 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.

2. 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

3. 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.