Protocols and Vocabularies with Trond Maag

LxDII has been working steadily on strands of the project relating to listening vocabularies and protocols. During the first phase of the project, which ran as a network between 2015 and 2016, and led up to Listening Across Disciplines II, the team identified a distinct need for shared vocabularies of listening. During the initial networking phase, it became apparent that every discipline developed its own language for the act, process and descriptions of listening within the aims and remit of their field. While this particularity of listening is very interesting, this also means that there is little crossover, and there is great potential for misunderstanding when describing listening processes.

The embedded working method of this project, working alongside experts from different disciplines and observing and adapting to their listening methods, gave us great insight into the variety of listening approaches and their differing objectives. It made us value the different ways listening functions and made us appreciate the need to mitigate between these approaches if we are serious about finding cross-disciplinary modes of research.

Working over the last three years across disciplines gave us time and access to interview, work and learn with and from researchers, students and practitioners in Lung Health, Audiology, Speech Synthesis, Urban Planning, Museums curation and pedagogy, as well as in Social Exclusion. Through this embedded process, through interviews and co-working, we encouraged each project partner to produce a listening protocol relating to their specific practice or processes within their specific discipline. We hoped such protocols would show us where we listen in similar ways, and identify possibilities for cross-disciplinary working.

Initially the need for a shared vocabulary and the protocols of listening seemed to be two separate elements. However, as the project developed, it became clear that these two elements of research — protocols and vocabularies of listening — were inextricably linked: the listening protocols supplied to us gave context to the vocabularies of listening that were sometimes unique to a discipline or way of working. They lend a context to each method and thus a basis on which analysis and discussion can occur; shared listening strategies can be identified, and absences and non-understanding detected.

Realising this, we began to overlay the protocols and vocabularies, seeing them as a way to accept, and articulate, the differences between the listening practices of different disciplines, while also offering a tool for learning ways of listening that might be unusual to a discipline but that might yield new insights and possibilities. Via this process, the project partners have been instrumental in aiding us to better understand how they listen, returning to their protocols and defining the words they use, so that we might be able to construct a web of listening words in practice that can be shared and become useful across disciplines.

In such extended reflections below, Urbanist Trond Maag unpacks his listening vocabulary via his protocol for listening. Keywords LxDII derived from Trond’s protocol included: ambulation, participation, plan, analysis and ethics. Trond articulated the following responses under his own title: “Modifying the urban sound realm by resident-led impulses”.


Engaging with the urban acoustic environment through ambulation
Walking through a specific location, such as a residential neighbourhood, a square or a park, allows us to keep our ear to the environment and become more aware of its acoustic qualities. We soon notice that sometimes only a few steps can make a big difference in how sound propagates and accumulates in space and how we perceive space. When ambulating in the city with our ears open, meaning paying a little more attention to the sounds we hear than usual, we start to discover spatial differences and read the natural and built environment acoustically. Almost like instrument makers, who have learned through daily practice to design and tune machines according to certain musical principles given the materials used and the expected audience and venue, we learn to speak to the city by ambulating and how its buildings, streets and neighbourhoods speak to us.
Assume the city is embedded in a continuous, open process kept active by its residents and visitors and constantly modified by planners and designers. It is impossible to design a location acoustically with precise design choices for materials and form as the instrument maker does. However, the perspective of a person walking around and exploring the acoustic environment generates a personal reference point for a given context. Following the sociologist Luzius Burckhardt’s approach of strollology – the science of walking – that we can transfer from its visual to more acoustic purposes, we generate a contextual starting point in perceiving and modifying places. We can draw these experiences we just made on a walk into any urban design process to go beyond the usual boundaries and principles set by noise maps and acoustic analysis.


Transferring sound-related knowledge from participatory strategies into the urban design practice
Combined walking and listening can influence the urban design practice and give a real chance to re-compose the city’s sound. Unlike reading noise maps and acoustic analysis, everyone can walk in the city, discovering sounds and how they are activated and modified by surfaces, materials and people. The walking approach is perfect for projects involving acoustic expertise and local ones, for example, from residents and users of a particular location. Planners and designers can balance their design choices with experiences and observations when collaborating with local communities, such as students or residents. The participatory context can also activate a project by a community, introducing different voices within a more or less standardized urban design process. People involved learn about the project and eventually get a sense of ownership for the place. They also have detailed knowledge about the place’s qualities the project developers may not have. Collaborating with a community can form a project’s identity, and designers and decision-makers can learn from local knowledge.
Residents of a neighbourhood know, for example, the best places for reading a book or meeting friends for a chat, where to relax and spend quiet moments during a busy and strenuous day, and which design measures could increase a place’s potential for recreational purposes. Such qualities rely very much on the sound-related characteristics of the public space, a pan-European issue that concerns every city transforming areas into densely built-up housing developments and attractive inner-city sites. Resident-led impulses from participatory work often contain contextual clues with references to environmental objectives, such as city climate and surface water management. These valuable impulses from the city’s residents and visitors can help influence decisions to transform and develop an area.


Contributing to sound qualities with an ear open for resident-led impulses
The public realm’s sound qualities should be radically open to the public and accessible for everyone. However, this is not always the case, in particular when certain members of the communities are excluded from areas where the environment’s natural and built characteristics are more suitable for sound quality. Therefore, some municipalities intend to provide sound quality to the everyday city, right there where people live. Such an approach includes the public parks and quiet landscape areas, which may be more peaceful by nature, and the residential and working areas next to busy streets and airports. In other words, everyone should be involved in this quality, not only a few who live in locations with fewer decibel values.
Having the considerations made earlier in mind, the same could be said about the underlying processes to design the public sound realm. Urban design processes are often not accessible for the public, and in particular, noise issues are challenging to follow in terms of regulations and the technical language used. Only a few people within the urban design process know how to interpret noise standards and work with noise levels and acoustic analysis. In such design processes, sound usually is not understood as a planned and designed quality but rather as a problem to be fixed. Impulses from the communities involved in the actual location have a great potential to turn this understanding and support a place and further development. People who engage in their environment with different cultural backgrounds, abilities and ages, professionals and non-specialists, with or without expertise in sound and acoustics, can be part of the process to form its (audible) outcomes and hone their sense of acoustic responsibility.


Analysing the interaction between urban space and sound in a particular urban context
The walks discussed earlier is an encouraging tool to include results from cooperative processes, in which residents generate local expertise about place and context, into the urban design practice. Before moving forward to plan design changes and choose options to improve the acoustic environment, analysis helps to gather the key aspects of a particular urban context, presenting how sound and space interact and how people activate and influence these interactions in everyday life. Concerning public health and well-being, but also to determine sound-aware objectives for developing an area, such analysis should also consider how people experience the acoustic environment. Since face-to-face communication in public space is essential, the analysis should also show the locations in the actual area where the natural, social and built conditions for this quality is insufficient.
Ask yourself what could happen in this particular place? What could be done by the urban designers, architects, landscape architects, and other actors involved in the design process? How could members of the community become an active part of it? Questions like these lead to further aspects the analysis could answer: For an actual urban context, the analysis shows sound and noise-related objectives from regulations and standards, often related to decibel levels. However, we can also determine aims related to design intentions without noise calculations. For example, depending on a fountain’s design, its dramatic and dynamic water sound can attract people and kids, making a public square more lively, or it can introduce a subtle background sound, articulating a courtyard’s acoustic space. The analysis suggests possible tools to establish these objectives, such as architectural competition, masterplan, and participatory process enabling cooperation. It shows design choices feasible to attain the objectives and introduces the actors/disciplines involved in the design process.


Influencing plans and actions of design professionals
The analysis can contain impulses to choose design parameters for an actual project. Architects, for example, could support the sound quality in the street by selecting the shape and geometry of big building facades and roofs to increase acoustic scattering. For backyards, it is also relevant to choose more sound-absorptive materials to reduce sharp reflections. Landscape architects can design a public park by introducing an acoustically less monotonous ground and positioning water features mingling with street noises. By planning public urban parks and squares more easily accessible for walkers, urban designers can improve the conditions for overall sound quality in a residential area.
The analysis’ results should be translated into a visual format, a plan showing the main sound qualities of an actual location and how they complement and connect with other areas and projects in the city. As mentioned earlier, this plan should not be confused with a document that shows how to reach a specific acoustic design, a task that is not realistic for an urban outdoor space. The city should be open to discovering acoustic facets and nuances, providing various, resident-grown versions of acoustic spaces instead of only those specified in a “city sound plan”. The approach described here does not result in a specific plan for urban sound but intends to make the urban design practice more sound-aware. Design professionals should explore the acoustic reasons for everyday design actions and balance them with the actual acoustic context. From my urbanistic viewpoint, the design approach should remain open to what could happen in a specific location. The details and results the approach can bring to the surface, particularly the results from co-creative work with a variety of people and disciplines, can influence the work practice of design professionals and other actors involved in the design process.
Trond Maag, 10 September 2021.


For a deep-dive into Trond’s work listen to our podcast below:

Trond’s latest co-authored article can be accessed here: Developing Sound-aware Cities

*All images taken during Oslo fieldwork, 2019. Copyright LxDII & Trond Maag.