The ever-expanding field of sensory urbanism is changing the way urban planners design entire neighborhoods

Jennifer Hattam

When David Howes thinks of his hometown of Montreal, he thinks of the harmonious tones of the Carillon of bells and the smell of bagels cooked over a wood fire. But in the tourist offices, if you ask what smells characterize a certain environment and what sounds can be heard, you only get empty looks in return. “We never talk about aspects of a city that go beyond the visual aspect,” says Howes, author of the book The Sensory Studies Manifesto and director of Concordia University’s Center for Sensory Studies, a hub of a constantly growing sector, often referred to as “sensory urbanism”.

Around the world, researchers like Howes are studying how non-visual information defines the character of a city and affects its livability.. Using methods ranging from low-tech sound walks and olfactory maps to data scraping, wearable devices and virtual reality, they are committed to overturning what they see as a limiting visual bias in urban planning.

“Just being able to close your eyes for 10 minutes gives you a completely different perception of a place,” says Oğuz Öner, academic and musician, who has spent years organizing sound walks in Istanbul where blindfolded participants describe their feelings in places different. His research made it possible to identify areas in which to muffle the noise of traffic with plants or to build a wave organ to amplify the soothing sounds of the sea..

Local authorities have expressed interest in his findings, Öner says, but have not yet incorporated them into urban plans. But this kind of individual feedback on the sensory environment is already being used in Berlin, where the most relaxing areas identified by citizens using a free mobile app have been included in the city’s latest urban plan. Under EU rules, the city is now obliged to protect these spaces from increasing noise.

“The way in which areas to be protected from noise pollution are identified usually relies on parameters of land use or distance from motorways,” explains Francesco Aletta, a researcher at University College London. “We are facing the first case of which I am aware of a political choice guided by people’s feelings”.

As a participant in the EU-funded Soundscape Indices project, Aletta is helping to create prediction models of how people will respond to various aural environments by compiling recorded, loud and quiet soundscapes., in a database and then testing the neural and physiological reactions they elicit. These types of tools are what experts believe are necessary to create a practical framework to ensure that multisensory elements are included in the design criteria and planning processes of cities.

How best to determine how people react to different sensory environments is the subject of debate within the field. Howes and his colleagues are taking a more ethnographic approach, using observation and interviews to develop a best practice for good sensory design in public spaces. Other researchers are becoming more high-tech, using wearable devices to monitor biometric data such as heart rate variability as a proxy for emotional responses to different sensory experiences.

The EU-funded GoGreen Routes project is following this approach as it investigates how nature can be integrated into urban spaces in a way that improves human and environmental health. “We are trying to define the elements that determine a particular experience of a space,” explains Daniele Quercia of Nokia Bell Labs Cambridge, one of the researchers working on the project. Quercia previously helped develop “Chatty Maps” and “Smelly Maps”, a sort of aural and olfactory maps of the city, collecting data from social media.

The latter project found strong correlations between people’s olfactory perceptions and more conventional indicators of air quality. With GoGreenRoutes, wearable technologies will be used to assess whether new and existing green space design improvements have the expected (and desired) impact on people’s well-being..

At Deakin University in Australia, architecture professor Beau Beza aims for full immersion experiences. His team is adding sounds, smells and surfaces to virtual reality environments that city authorities can use to present urban projects to interested parties. “Static depictions of streets, parks or squares on paper are difficult for many people to visualize“Says Beza. “Being able to ‘walk’ through it and feel it ‘breath’ improves understanding“.

As the collection of data on people’s sensory experiences becomes more widespread, many of these experts warn that concerns about privacy and surveillance need to be taken into account. Issues of fairness and inclusion also come into play when determining which sensory experiences are taken into account in planning. Disadvantaged urban communities have typically borne the brunt of smelly factory drains, but are also prone to noise pollution, for example when their neighborhoods become gentrified.

“Sensory perceptions are not neutral, or simply biological. The idea of ​​pleasantness has been culturally and socially shaped, ”says Monica Montserrat Degen, an urban cultural sociologist at Brunel University in London. London and Barcelona planners are using her research into perceptions of public space and how “sensory hierarchies”, to use her words, include or exclude different groups of people.

Degen cites the example of a London neighborhood where cheap eateries that served as a hangout for young locals have been replaced by trendy cafes. “Once upon a time it just smelled like fried chicken,” he says, “and the residents didn’t like it at all. Now it smells like cappuccino and nobody complains ”.

Jennifer Hattam is a freelance journalist from Istanbul.

Image: Amrita Marino

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The post Cities to listen to, smell, live in: sensory urban planning is the new frontier first appeared on Technology Review Italia.

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