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Year : 2014  |  Volume : 16  |  Issue : 73  |  Page : 380-387
Characterizing urban areas with good sound quality: Development of a research protocol

Centre for Sustainability, Environment and Health (DMG), National Institute of Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), Bilthoven, The Netherlands

Click here for correspondence address and email
Date of Web Publication11-Nov-2014

Due to rapid urbanization, the spatial variation between wanted and unwanted sounds will decrease or even disappear. Consequently, the characteristics of (urban) areas where people can temporarily withdraw themselves from urban stressors such as noise may change or become increasingly scarce. Hardly any research has been carried out into the positive health effects of spending time in areas with a good sound quality. One of the problems is that an overview of what aspects determines good sound quality in urban areas and how these are interrelated is lacking. This paper reviews the literature pertaining to the sound quality of urban areas. Aim is to summarize what is known about the influence of social, spatial, and physical aspects other than sounds, on peoples' perception of urban sound qualities. Literature from both conventional sound research and from the so-called soundscape field, published between 2000 and the beginning of 2013 in English or Dutch, was evaluated. Although a general set of validated indicators that can be directly applied, is not available yet, a set of indicators was derived from the literature. These form the basis of a study protocol that will be applied in "Towards a Sustainable acoustic Environment", a project that aims to describe sound qualities at a low-scale level. Key-elements of this study protocol, including a questionnaire and the systematic audit of neighborhoods, were presented in this paper.

Keywords: Indicators, sound quality, urban areas

How to cite this article:
van Kempen E, Devilee J, Swart W, van Kamp I. Characterizing urban areas with good sound quality: Development of a research protocol. Noise Health 2014;16:380-7

How to cite this URL:
van Kempen E, Devilee J, Swart W, van Kamp I. Characterizing urban areas with good sound quality: Development of a research protocol. Noise Health [serial online] 2014 [cited 2023 Dec 5];16:380-7. Available from: https://www.noiseandhealth.org/text.asp?2014/16/73/380/144416

  Introduction Top

Cities are lively and dynamic places often accompanied by levels of unwanted sounds (noise), which might contribute to feelings of discomfort or annoyance in many urban areas. [1] The absence of noise (unwanted sounds) and the presence of pleasant sounds (wanted sounds) can contribute to the experience of tranquility or rest and "quietness." This experience can be found at several locations in urban areas: For example, at home, in a park, or at the square. [2] However, due to the rapid and continuing urbanization, the spatial variation between wanted and unwanted sounds is increasingly decreasing and might at some locations even disappear. Consequently, the characteristics of (spaces within) urban areas where people can temporarily withdraw from urban stressors such as noise may change or become increasingly scarce. This is problematic, since scientific evidence indicates that spending time in areas with relatively few and low levels of stressors such as noise is beneficial for our health and well-being by offering psychophysiological recovery (also indicated as restoration) from stress and mental fatigue. [3] Evidence is, however, still limited, and the mechanisms behind it need further attention. An important cause is that most studies address the restorative effects of naturally recreational areas outside the urban environment. Moreover, hardly any research has been carried out into the characteristics of pleasant urban sound climates (or areas with good sound quality) and its assumed positive impact on health and well-being.

Conventional research and policy into environmental noise has been dominated by noise as a physical measure (decibels expressed in, e.g., Lden or Lnight ) and has been mainly focused on limit values, trying to reduce the negative effects of environmental noise. Conventional research and policy into environmental noise considers sounds mainly as a pollutant, a somewhat unavoidable waste product and an aversive stimulus, leading to negative responses. [4] However, apart from whether it is feasible or cost-effective, reducing noise levels does not necessarily lead to an improvement of the living conditions in urban areas and quality of life. [1] Consequently, the almost exclusive attention to physical noise metrics is starting to shift toward attempting to understand meanings, and the role of context in people's perceptions of - and reactions to acoustic environments. [4] An approach that is gaining ground in this context is the so-called "soundscape approach". [5],[6],[7] The concept of a soundscape is broad, and accommodates the complete sound environment in a location and the human response to it. [7] Originally, the soundscape approach was oriented toward the meaning of sound in the environment and planning involving the protection and creation of varied soundscapes. The idea is that the meanings people give to sounds and noise, or to an exposure context, strongly influences their reactions and accompanying health effects. [4]

Conventional noise research has been focused exclusively on the negative aspects and meanings of sound, such as annoyance, [8],[9],[10] increase of the risk of cardiovascular disease [9],[10],[11],[12] or other impairments in health and well-being. However, in order to understand the driving forces behind noise, it is important to study the positive aspects of sounds as well. Illustrating is the fact that people like to visit discos because they appreciate the loud music [13],[14] or that they like motorcycles because of the sound they make (sound design). [15] Through its emphasis on context and meaning, the soundscape approach could potentially link with health through the restorative function of people's experiences of areas of good sound quality. [4] Although it is assumed that areas with good sound quality are not only characterized by acoustical aspects, but also by social, spatial, and physical aspects other than sounds, an overview of what these factors are and how they are interrelated is lacking. A set of validated indicators that can be generally applied is also not available yet. Consequently, it is not possible yet to make a link between spending time in urban areas with good sound quality and its effects on human health and well-being.


The Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu (RIVM)-project "Towards a Sustainable acoustic Environment" (TASTE), commissioned by the Director General of the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), is aimed at filling the knowledge gaps described above and to explore the effect of access to urban areas with high acoustical quality on people's perceptions and experience of their residential environment. Specific objectives are:

  1. To combine objective data describing the acoustical quality of an urban area with people's perception and experience of this area in order to improve the characterization of urban areas with high acoustical quality,
  2. To explore the degree of spatial variation in sound levels needed to positively affect people's perception and experience of their immediate environment, and
  3. To explore at what scale level (city-level, neighborhood level, street level) this spatial variation may play a role.

Aims and objectives

This paper narratively reviews the literature pertaining to the sound quality of urban areas. The aim is to summarize what is known about the influence of social, spatial and physical aspects other than sounds, on peoples' perception of urban sound qualities. Key questions of this review are:

  1. What are acoustic indicators are characterizing pleasant urban sound quality can be derived from the literature?
  2. What social, spatial and physical aspects other than sounds should be included in the characterization of the sound quality of urban areas, and
  3. How are these aspects linked with sound qualities? The results of this overview were used to develop a study design to investigate the research questions within TASTE.

  Methods Top

This narrative is primarily focused on:

  1. Studies that aimed to describe sonic environments and/or soundscapes,
  2. Studies in which new and possibly relevant acoustic indicators were developed, and on
  3. Studies in which classifications of sounds and soundscapes were derived.

One of the starting points for our bibliographic search, was an earlier RIVM review dealing with the societal meaning of sound. [15] In addition, we carried out a database query in the spring of 2011. Articles involving acoustic environments in relation to health and well-being, published between 2000 and 2010 in English or Dutch, were identified in the SCOPUS database (see http://www.scopus.com). In 2013, we updated our search with articles published between 2010 and 2013. [Box 1] provides the keywords used in the search strategy. To ensure that most of the studies could be identified we manually scanned scientific journals, reports and proceeding in the area of noise, health, acoustics and soundscapes, and we checked relevant literature for additional studies. Furthermore, we consulted two environmental psychologists and a physical planner. Their comments resulted in an extension of our list with publications covering topics such as "general models of the way in which people deal with environmental stressors", and "place attachment and place identity." We evaluated the identified studies with a particular focus on mechanisms and approaches rather than the study features such as study design, sample, and sample size.

Our narrative is divided into three main sections, presenting a summary of:

  1. Acoustical indicators of good sounds quality,
  2. The role of spatial and physical aspects other than noise, and
  3. The role of socio (demographic) and personal aspects.

At the end of each section, we describe the implications for the study protocol that will be applied in the TASTE project. An overview of the key-elements of this study protocol is presented in [Figure 1].
Figure 1: Elements of the "Towards a Sustainable acoustic Environment" study protocol

Click here to view

  Acoustic indicators of good sound quality Top

As expected, the literature was primarily focused on acoustic indicators, and revealed a large variety of those, ranging from simple, verbal indicators expressing characteristics of the sounds heard (e.g., sound categories and sound quality judgments) to more complex indicators such as yearly averaged equivalent noise levels (LAeq,T ), background levels (LA90 ), and measures expressing the spectral variance of sounds. [15] It is not clear yet, which acoustic indicator(s) predict people's perception of the sound quality of the area best: According to several soundscape studies, carried out in (city) parks and/or rural areas, [16],[17],[18] statistical indicators such as LA50 and LA95 may be better able to predict whether people perceive an area as "quiet" (one aspect of sound quality) than conventional indicators Lden or LA10 . In recent times, however, Brambilla et al., tested which acoustic indicators (including LA10 , LA50 , and LA95 ) could predict whether people perceive the soundscape of the area as (very) good. It appeared that all tested indicators were not highly correlated with good quality (r ~ −0.4) and that it was not possible to indicate which of the tested indicators, predicted peoples' perception best. [19] It is not clear yet, which acoustic indicators are most suitable to characterize urban areas with good sound quality.

Another relevant finding, is that although people can be quite tolerant towards noise during daily activities, sound levels should not be too high, nor should they be too intrusive. [18],[20],[21],[22],[23],[24] Illustrative, is the finding of Nilsson and Berglund among visitors of Swedish city parks, that the sound quality of these parks with an LAeq higher than 50 dB was perceived as a place with poor sound quality. [22] Participants in a study by Brambilla and Maffei, in Italian city parks, indicated that these sound levels matched a good sound quality. [20] In addition, according to Zhang and Kang, people will be annoyed due to high-noise levels (sound pressure level [SPL] >65-70 dB(A)), irrespective of the source. In the case, the overall noise levels are less high (SPL <65-70 dB(A)), the design of the different sounds becomes more of importance. [21] As a possible solution, Zhang and Kang suggested that in some cases high levels of unwanted sounds can be masked by wanted sounds (auditory masking). For instance, the use of fountain sounds for masking road traffic noise in urban parks. The idea is that the sound from the fountain reduces the loudness of the road traffic noise. [21] But as Brown states, it is not that simple: "Human preference and outcomes depend less on the absolute levels of sounds and more on the nature of the sounds that are presents (and in particular on the appropriateness of the particular sounds in a particular place and context - wanted and unwanted sounds), and on the relative levels of those sounds". [25] Therefore, it will not be a surprise that consensus about when unwanted sound levels are too high, and are a threat for the pleasantness of the sound quality in an urban area, is still lacking. When characterizing urban areas with good sound quality, a broader view is needed: For a pleasant sound quality, the balance between unwanted and wanted sounds is important. Although consensus about what set of acoustical indicators is most suitable to characterize urban areas with good sound quality, is still lacking, it is clear that acoustic indicators such as background levels (LA50 , LA90 , and LA95 ), other than the conventional LAeqT metrics, could also be of importance. However, with most sound models, it is only possible to estimate sound levels from sources that produce noise. These are usually expressed as yearly equivalent sound levels (Lden and Lnight ). Unfortunately, it is not possible yet to model and/or estimate sound levels of wanted sounds. In order to obtain a clear picture of the levels of wanted sounds and their variation in time and space, costly sound measurements are required, which is not always feasible.

A third observation from the literature is that, in addition to the variation in time and spectral variance, also the spatial variation in sounds is assumed to influence peoples' perception of sound qualities. [3],[26],[27] It is not clear yet, how large the variation in sounds should be and at what scale level this plays a role. Our conclusions can be illustrated by findings from Klaeboe et al. [26],[27] and the Swedish Soundscape Support to Health project: [23],[24] By means of data gathered in surveys, Klaeboe et al. [26],[27] investigated whether the highest and lowest equivalent noise exposure values that were encountered at the respondents' dwellings or direct surroundings within a fixed distance (75 m), affected the reported annoyance due to road traffic noise. Based on their analyses, Klaeboe et al. [26],[27] concluded that a noisy neighborhood amplified the noise annoyance levels at home and the other way around; surprisingly, no indications were found that the availability of quiet(er) areas reduces road traffic noise annoyance. Possibly, the noise levels were too high for quieter outdoor areas to provide much of a respite. [27] Later, the results of the Swedish project Soundscape Support to Health showed that persons with a nearby quiet area reported less annoyance, were less often disturbed during rest and relaxation, and reported less stress-related symptoms, compared with persons without a nearby quiet area. However, access to a quiet side or a nearby quiet area did not compensate for the effects of high levels of unwanted sounds (LAeq, 24 h equal or higher than 60 dB) at the most exposed façade. [23],[24]

Implications for TASTE

As part of TASTE, an online questionnaire among people (aged 18 years and older) recruited from about 30 neighborhoods in three Dutch cities (Arnhem, Amsterdam, and Rotterdam) was planned [Figure 1]. The participating neighborhoods will be selected according to the level of urbanization (variation in) noise levels, and layout of the neighborhood; we will also match on socioeconomic status. The questionnaire that will be administered, aims to investigate people's perception and experience of the sound quality of their direct living environment. The choice of indicators for this questionnaire will be partly based on the results of this review, which means that elements from noise research and elements from soundscape research will be combined: For example, the "classical" annoyance question (ISO-standard) [28] will be supplemented with items on the audibility and characterization of soundscapes (e.g., inquiring for sources of sound). [22] The questionnaire also intends to measure the respondent's judgment of the sound quality in and around the home. A cluster of questions dealing with acoustically pleasant places in the neighborhood, in terms of availability and use, respondents' perceptions, and the perceived sound quality of these places was developed and will be included. [2],[29]

The findings of the review imply that, in addition to yearly equivalent sound levels (Lden ), also other acoustic indicators should be generated, in order to explore the acoustic quality of several scale levels (home situation, street, or neighborhood) within the participants' direct living environment. In TASTE, yearly equivalent sound levels (Lden ) produced by road- and rail traffic will be generated by means of the STAndard Model Instrumentation for Noise Assessments (STAMINA). [30] In addition, STAMINA also has the possibility to assess background noise levels (LA95 ) produced by road and rail traffic. [30],[31] Furthermore, the generated yearly equivalent sound levels (Lden ) will be used to generate new summary measures such as:

  1. The highest and the lowest 24-h equivalent SPL (expressed as Lden ) within fixed distances from the participants dwelling (e.g., within the street, within the neighborhood), and
  2. The interquartile ranges of all 24-h equivalent SPLs (expressed as Lden ) in the street or neighborhood where the participants' dwelling is situated. In this way, we hope to get more insight into the spatial distribution of sound levels from dominant noise sources in the urban context.

  Physical and spatial factors other than sounds Top

In conventional research, spatial and physical factors other than sound are assumed to affect the propagation of sounds, since they affect the adsorption and reflection of sound waves. For example, high barriers can reduce the ambient sound levels by >10 dB. However, there are also other relevant factors that are assumed to affect the sound quality of the area; these include the shape of a place or its' spatial design, and the boundary materials applied, street furniture - such as lampposts, fences, barriers, benches, and bus shelters, and vegetation (plants and trees). [21]

The simulations of Kang illustrate well how the shape of an area affects its sound quality due to change in sound propagation. In his analysis, he demonstrated how the arrangement of streets affects the SPL showing the impact of side streets on the sound field of a major street. Second, his simulations showed that due to staggering of straight streets, direct sound is diminished; not only are the reflection paths longer, the number of reflections is also larger. [32]

Changing the shape of streets is not always feasible. As an alternative, traffic flows can be redistributed around buildings. Salomons et al. showed that by means of redistribution of the traffic flow around buildings with uninterrupted facades, sound levels at building facades can be reduced in such a way that quiet sides (noise-shielded sides) are created. The effect of large openings between buildings is twofold: Openings between buildings the number of multiple reflections is reduced, leading to a decrease in sound levels; on the other hand the openings can cause the propagation around buildings causing an increase in sound levels at some receivers. [33]

Boundary materials may affect the reverberation and attenuation of sounds. The presence of mainly acoustically rigid materials in cities (streets, bricks, concrete, glazing, etc.) leads to a strong amplification of emitted sound from, for example, road traffic, and large SPLs are observed in city canyons. [34]

In the literature, it has been suggested that vegetation (trees, plants) and soil may have an impact on the sound level. [21],[35],[36],[37],[38],[39] Vegetation is capable of reduce sound levels by reflecting, refracting, scattering and absorbing sound. The effect of the sound barrier of vegetation on sound propagation is highly dependent on the frequency of the sound. One way to overcome this is by choosing plants with a noise-reducing spectrum similar to the environmental noise spectrum. Fan et al. demonstrated that the deodar cedar reduces low-frequency noise more effectively than, for example, arrow wood, oleander or bamboo. [38] In addition, special arrangement of the vegetation can significantly increase noise attenuation for certain frequencies. Density, height, length and width of vegetation are the most important factors to consider in reducing noise. [38]

There is another reason why physical properties of the area are important. The layout of the area also determines the visual characteristics of an area, which may have a direct effect on the perception of the sound ambiance of that area. Research into sound preference that included the interaction between vision and hearing, demonstrated that vision and hearing are not independent, but rather interact and reinforce each other in complex ways. [23],[24],[40],[41],[42],[43],[44],[45],[46],[47],[48] For example, Southworth investigated how the impressions that visitors have when walking through an urban place is affected by the visual and sound experience of that place. [42] Anderson et al. investigated the effects of sounds on preferences for various outdoor settings, in which the visual environment varied according to the degree of urban development. [43] More recently, Pedersen and Larsman studied the impact of visual factors on noise annoyance among people living near wind turbines and concluded that the perceived impact of wind turbines on the landscape scenery (the so-called visual attitude) was more important for annoyance than the actual noise levels produced by the wind turbines. [48] In the Soundscape Support to Health Project, it was concluded that quiet courtyards only have a positive effect on annoyance and restoration if they have a high visual quality. [23],[24]

Some studies have actually evaluated the physical and spatial characteristics of areas with good sound quality. [2],[18],[29],[49],[50] As part of the Quiet Places Project in Amsterdam, people were asked to name a quiet place in their neighborhood or elsewhere. It was striking that the place most often mentioned, was a courtyard with chapel that is located just around the corner of the busiest shopping street of Amsterdam. In response to the question "what characterizes your favorite, nearby quiet area," the presence of green and water was mentioned most often (96% of the respondents); "cleanliness/well kept" also scored high (77%), as did "nice colors" (74%), "spacious" (68%), and "nice odor" (52%). Interesting finding was that residents from the suburbs described a quiet place as spacious, with nice odors and few people, while inner city residents more often indicated nice buildings as important characteristic. [2],[29]

Earlier, De Coensel and Botteldooren have developed a set of criteria for the quality of quiet rural areas. According to them, these spaces may be characterized by a combination of acoustical criteria, such as relatively low sound levels and the relative absence of nonfitting sounds, and nonacoustical criteria such as the presence of natural elements within the visual scene. [18]

Pheasant et al. studied the perceived characteristics of tranquil places ("space that can facilitate a state of tranquility, suggesting reconciliation between mental space and the physical and social spaces in which we live and work"). By presenting visual and acoustic data captured from 11 rural and urban landscapes to volunteers. Maximum SPL (LAmax ) and the percentage of natural features of a location showed to be key factors influencing perceived tranquility. In a later phase of the study, also a range of man-made features that directly contributed to the overall visual context of the environment appeared to be of importance. Features under study were: Listed buildings, religious and historic buildings, landmarks, monuments and man-made elements of the landscape. [49],[50]

Since indications exist that spending time in areas with good sound quality are beneficial for health and well-being by offering psychophysiological recovery ("restoration") from stressor as noise and mental fatigue, we could also learn from the results from studies that investigate (features in the) built environments that can promote "restoration". [51],[52] Physical attributes might affect people's perception of the restorative quality of the area. [53],[54],[55],[56],[57] By means of computer simulations, Lindal and Hartig, for example, generated 145 images of streetscapes. Participants had to rate these images with regard to the likelihood of restoration, fascination, being away and preference. The results showed that attributes such as building height, façade details influenced people's judgments regarding of restoration likelihood for urban residential streetscapes. [51]

Implications for TASTE

The results from our review demonstrate that it is important that, in addition to information people's perceptions, also information on several physical and social features of the neighborhood where the participants live, should be collected. Within TASTE, this will be done by trained surveyors who register the features of the selected neighborhoods in a systematic way (auditing). In this way, information about the neighborhoods can be collected that cannot be derived from secondary data or registrations, such as the architectural character, maintenance of the landscape, and the general impression of the place ("how a place looks and feels like"). Data thus gathered can in a later phase of the project be combined with data from national and local databases (usual in geographic information systems) such as the type, age of the buildings in the neighborhood, urbanization level, land use, air pollution levels. In addition, information regarding the level of amenities (e.g., number of and distance to shops, bars and restaurants, places to meet, health care services) will be gathered [Figure 1].

An alternative way to explore in more detail the spatial and temporal variation in soundscapes (including wanted sounds) present within an urban area and their perception by its inhabitants, is a smartphone-based monitor of time location patterns. [58],[59] By adding momentary states (ecological momentary assessment), it would be possible to find out more about their potential of offering recovery from stress and fatigue. Unfortunately, it will not be feasible to apply a smartphone-based monitor in TASTE.

  Sociodemographic factors Top

From conventional literature, it is already known that several sociodemographic aspects (e.g., socioeconomic status, length of residence, place attachment), and social support are of importance with respect to the evaluation of acoustic (dis)comfort (in terms of, e.g., annoyance) and with regard to sound preferences. [60],[61],[62],[63],[64] The Quiet Places Project in Amsterdam found that the acoustic quality is a universal concept: Results showed that people's preferences are independent on personal characteristics such as noise sensitivity, age or household composition; very different people can prefer the same quiet place. [2],[29] The very few studies investigating the association between sociodemographic factors sound quality of the area, are inconclusive about quiet as characterized by the absence or presence of people. [2],[21],[29],[63]

Implications for TASTE

The results of the review imply that information about sociodemographic factors should be derived. Within TASTE, this will be done in two ways: Information will be gathered from national and local databases (e.g., age and gender distribution, number of beneficiaries, ethnicity). In addition, inquiries for conventional sociodemographic factors at individual level will be included in the questionnaire as well as aspects such as length of residency, place attachment, and social cohesion and other aspects relevant for the evaluation of sounds and sound quality (e.g., noise sensitivity and coping).

  Conclusion Top

This paper summarizes the literature of acoustical, social, physical and spatial aspects other than sound that might be relevant for the characterization of urban areas with good sound quality. To this end, not only literature from conventional research was evaluated; also, literature from the so-called soundscape field was included. Although a general set of validated indicators that can be directly applied, is not available yet, a set of indicators was derived from the literature. These form the basis of a study protocol that will be applied in TASTE, a project that aims to describe sound qualities at a low-scale level. Key-elements of this study protocol, including a questionnaire and the systematic audit of neighborhoods, were presented in this paper.

  References Top

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Correspondence Address:
Dr. Elise van Kempen
National Institute of Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), Centre for Sustainability, Environment and Health (DMG), Antonie van Leeuwenhoeklaan 9, 3720BA Bilthoven
The Netherlands
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Source of Support: The review was carried out and written as part of the RIVM-project TASTE, commissioned and funded by the Director of the Dutch National Institute of Public Health and the Environment., Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/1463-1741.144416

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