Managing our Soundscape

Steven Miller interviews Nicholas Miller for AE
October 30, 2005

Steven M. Miller, sound artist, interviews Nicholas P. Miller, Senior Vice President of Harris Miller Miller & Hanson, Inc., a consulting firm in the field of noise and vibration control for airports, highways, rail, transit, construction, industrial and recreation facilities. We asked him about managing our soundscape.

SM What are some of the most important impacts and effects of noise? How are we dealing with it?

NPM In terms of effects, interference can lead to an emotional negative reaction, termed annoyance, though experiencing interference does not always result in annoyance. Interference can be with speech/conversation, listening/contemplation, or relaxation. It varies widely by individual, though one can always derive average responses which we have done in national parks.

Sources vary widely. In major urban areas they can be honking horns, car alarms, car stereos, highway or street traffic either in general or specific vehicles such as loud trucks or motorcycles or buses, etc. In suburban areas it's more likely to be lawn mowers, dogs, go-carts, motorbikes, student parties. In national parks - remote areas with little local sources of noise - ATVs, jet skis, snowmobiles, small aircraft, tour aircraft, and even high altitude jets can cause interference and annoyance. Generally speaking, it's hard to find any place where some sort of human-produced sounds are not heard regularly - within minutes, not within hours of listening.

The well-developed approaches to managing these noise sources are really for those that are the subject of government oversight - aircraft, highway traffic and rail/rapid transit systems. Each of these sources is regularly affected by government actions that require documentation of environmental effects. For general design of public spaces and management of national parks, however, the jury is still out or hasn't even been selected. That is to say, the major transportation modes all have documented methods for determining impact based on quantitative values such as decibels of one form or another. But public spaces and parks are more likely to be designed or managed to provide specific opportunities to the public/visitors and these opportunities, such as rest, contemplation, conversation or even performances. These have not been much studied in terms of what soundscapes are appropriate, and certainly not quantified. Hence no approach, historical or recent has yet emerged.

SM Part of the mission of the National Park Service, in managing public lands, is to preserve, restore, and/or protect natural resources, including the natural soundscape, for future generations. What are the main obstacles to effectively managing these soundscapes?

NPM For the National Park Service the main difficulties are in formulating a consistent, well-developed process across so many different park units. I have a sense that the NPS, the Natural Sounds Office in Fort Collins, Colorado, is making progress in spreading the word among park managers. The unanswered critical question is, however, how much human produced sound is acceptable in park settings.

The point is that the park management really needs to 'get out there' and decide what parts of their parks sound the way they should. If there's quantitative data available that certainly helps, but they also have to make some judgments based on their experiences as to what's appropriate. And that, I think, should happen before anything else. There are parts of the backcountry where it's acceptable to have moderately frequent interaction with other hikers, and other parts where you're supposed to rarely see anyone, and they should have a sense of what soundscape goes along with that.

And once they've decided that a given site's soundscape is what it should be, they can then bring in the acousticians and technical folks who will give you all the metrics - sound level readings, sound counts, visitor reaction surveys, etc. - they can think of that apply to that park and you can begin to narrow it down as to what some of the values of those metrics should be. In many ways, however, it's not the numbers that matter; it's what it sounds like. But the only way you can, over a long period of time and objectively, determine whether you are meeting your objectives is by some kind of metric because the staff personnel will change, or it may be hard - you know a manager can't sit out there for three days and decide if it has gotten worse.

SM How would you describe the relationship of your work to the growing field of acoustic ecology?

NPM I sense that what our work has to contribute is an understanding of how to collect and interpret quantitative data that could be used to further the pursuit or understanding of acoustic ecology.

SM How does your work relate to the concept of soundscape design as a proactive discipline more firmly embedded, if you will, in the consciousness of developers and city planners?

NPM If we can sit down with the planners, and architects, and engineers who are planning a new re-use of a city space and they can tell us things like traffic patterns, where they want the roads, what kind of traffic it will be, we can use our models and our database to construct basically a virtual soundscape. We can take recordings and put them together in accordance with a lot of quantitative analysis so that they will sound the way this future space could sound. In situations where there are choices, where the whole process is not driven by regulations, we need to devise ways to let the decision-makers and the affected public hear what a space will sound like as part of the design process, just as they judge the appearance of a space with models, graphics or renderings before it is finally built. It's fascinating, and perhaps symptomatic of our need to quantify, that we forget that what really matters is what a place sounds like, what we hear or will hear when we listen, when we use our ears.

© 2005