Why sounds and smells are just as important to cities as the sights

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Around the world, researchers such as Howes are investigating how non-visual information defines a city’s character and influences its liveability. Using methods ranging from low-tech soundwalks and scent maps to data scraping, wearables and virtual reality, they fight 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 feeling about a place,” says Oguz Öner, an academic and musician.

For years, Öner has organized sound walks in Istanbul where blindfolded participants describe what they hear in different places. His research identified sites where vegetation could be planted to muffle traffic noise or where a wave organ could be built to amplify the soothing sounds of the sea, something he was surprised to find people could barely hear, even along the water’s edge.

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

“The way quiet areas are identified is usually very top-down, either based on land use or high-level parameters such as distance from highways,” explains Francesco Aletta, a research associate at University College London. “This is the first example I’m aware of something becoming perception-driven policy.”

As a member of the EU-funded Soundscape Indexes project, Aletta helps create prediction models for how humans will respond to different acoustic environments by compiling recorded soundscapes, both vivid and tranquil, into a database and then testing the neural and physiological responses they elicit. These kinds of tools, according to experts, are necessary to create a practical framework to ensure that multisensory elements are included in design criteria and planning processes for cities.

The best way to determine how humans respond to different sensory environments is subject to debate within the field. Taking a more ethnographic approach, Howes and his colleagues use observation and interviews to develop a set of best practices for good sensory design in public spaces. Other researchers are going more high-tech, using wearables to track biometrics like heart rate variability as a proxy for emotional responses to different sensory experiences. The EU-funded GoGreen Routes project is looking at that approach as it explores how to integrate nature into urban spaces in ways that improve human and environmental health.