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Sustainable sound environments - how do we achieve them?

Panel discussion during Sustainability Week in Lund 2023

Is it an early sign of stress that you can't enjoy music? Are there contexts where noise is good? What makes "Djungellekan" in Helsingborg different from a normal playground? And what does "a sound environment á la carte" mean? Three researchers and a sound creator were brought together to discuss sustainable sound environments during Sustainability Week in Lund.

As part of Sustainability Week in Lund, the Sound Environment Centre arranged a panel discussion on sustainable sound environments on 18 April 2023. The four panel members highlighted sound environments from a historical perspective and from a spatial perspective (outdoors versus indoors) and discussed the individual's sound world related to the sound environments we experience collectively in the public room. The panel gave examples of how political decisions can help or overturn the development towards a better and more sustainable sound environment and also gave examples of how to think about and work with sound in new and different ways. The panel felt that we should be aware that the development is going in the wrong direction through political decisions in recent years, e.g. by allowing higher noise levels. To curb this development, we need to work from different directions, but above all, increase awareness of sound in terms of quality. Which sounds do we need more or less of to feel good? And how do we create a good balance in the sound environments we find ourselves in?

The panel discussion was led by Sanne Krogh Groth and consisted of four panel members: David Larsson Heidenblad from the Department of History, Kristoffer Mattisson from the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Viveka Lyberg-Åhlander from Åbo Akademi, and Martin Hallberg from the sound design agency Efterklang. The panel members each gave a presentation before the event transitioned into a discussion.

One theme was noise, from a historical perspective and today. David Larsson Heidenblad highlighted that the awareness of sound increased as the car-borne society grew, and that the political decisions made for a better environment, during the late 60s and early 70s, came to influence and set the path for the following 50 years. The way we talk about sustainability today is a direct result of the concrete decisions that were made at this time. Kristoffer Mattisson emphasized that noise is the single biggest environmental disturbance that affects most people in Sweden today, but that sound has not been given the same space in the public debate or on political agendas, compared to e.g. air pollution. Today, the development is going in the wrong direction. The limit values ​​for noise have been raised, mainly with the aim of increasing new construction, which entails great risks of negative impact on people's physical and mental health.

The panel called for an increased debate about noise and highlighted examples of what can be done to counteract the development, e.g. reduced speed limits, diversion of traffic and encouraging and facilitating pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Noise is also a major work problem indoors, including in schools. Poor room acoustics and sound environments have strong negative effects on teachers ability to use their voices and, by extension, on the students' performance, Viveka Lyberg-Åhlander pointed out. Children and educators in preschool and school are exposed to harmful decibel levels all day, without us doing anything about it. Sound and health go hand in hand, the panel said. Being constantly surrounded by noise and chatter wears us out, but it also works the other way around. Increased sound sensitivity is an early indication of stress. Disliking things that you normally enjoy, for example listening to music, is to be considered an "early warning signal" for an excessively high stress level.

The panel also discussed the effects of almost all people wearing headphones when moving around in the public space. We don't experience the world sensorially in common anymore, Viveka pointed out. We are in our own chosen sound worlds, a sound environment "à la carte", and the long run risk is that we won't be able to listen to things we don't think are interesting to us, or listen to each other when we talk. We lose an important frame of reference by not sharing what we hear, the panel said. Since we use earbuds from the time we close the door to the time we arrive at our destination, we're not really present in the common outdoor sound environment at all.

Another theme was how we can work creatively to achieve a better and more sustainable sound environment for everyone. Instead of striving for silence in all contexts or forbidding certain sounds, the so-called "library effect", Martin Hallberg believed that we should think about sound based on quality. A moderate noise level is unavoidable and does not necessarily have to be negative. For example, it helps the visually impaired to navigate the urban environment. Martin pointed out that most sounds in urban environments are not made to be listened to, they just leak out as sound energy. By mapping and categorizing the sounds around us, we can "remix" the city, i.e. remove sounds that disturb but also add the right kind of sound. By doing so, we can achieve a good balance and a more pleasant sound environment. He highlighted "Djungellekan" in Helsingborg as an example of how we can compose a soundscape in the middle of the city. At "Djungellekan", jungle sounds have been added in the form of sound scenes that are played every fifteen minutes around the playground. The park has been hugely appreciated by visitors and received a lot of attention for landscape design and innovative sound environment. 

In conclusion, the panel was in complete agreement that it is possible to create more sustainable sound environments in the future, with the help of awareness, creativity and better planning.

Here you can read more about "Djungellekan" in Helsingborg: link to Efterklang's website

See the panel discussion in its entirety on our YouTube channel. The panel discussion was held in Swedish.

Martin Hallberg is creative director of Efterklang, a group of 140 sound specialists in areas such as acoustics, community noise, sound design, vibration, and studio operations. He has a 25-year background in sound design and concept development for places and products, and is part of the project team that recently won Landmärket (the Swedish Architects' prize for the best landscape architecture of the year 2023).

David Larsson Heidenblad is Associate Professor of History at Lund University and the author of the book "Den gröna vändningen: En ny kunskapshistoria om miljöfrågornas genombrott i efterkrigstidens Sverige" (2021) (The Green Turn: A New History of Knowledge about the Breakthrough of Environmental Issues in Postwar Sweden). His research focuses on environmental history, the history of knowledge, and economic cultural history.

Viveka Lyberg-Åhlander is a certified Speech Language Pathologist. She is Professor of Speech Language Pathology at Åbo Akademi University, Finland, and a docent in Logopedics at Lund University. Lyberg Åhlander's research focuses on voice and voice disorders, and on how the speaker's voice quality and interactions affect the listener's understanding of the message. Lyberg Åhlander has designed and led/participated in two research projects studying the effects of workplace-based interventions aimed at strengthening teachers' communication where voice use is one important aspect. 

Kristoffer Mattisson works as a researcher at the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at Lund University. His research focuses on environmental epidemiology, particularly understanding how various environmental exposures, such as noise, air pollution, and high temperatures, negatively affect human health, as well as how access to green spaces in cities can have a positive impact on health. He has a background in physical geography and therefore also has a research and educational interest in understanding how climate change may change the conditions for different environmental exposures.

Sanne Krogh Groth is Associate Professor of Musicology and director of the Sound Environment Centre at Lund University. Her research concerns historiographic, aesthetic, political and institutional issues within the fields of contemporary music, electronic music and sound art in the 20th and 21st century. Sanne is co-editor of the anthology "Negotiating Noise - Across Places, Spaces and Disciplines" (2021), which includes texts on the topic of noise written by 20 researchers from Europe and Southeast Asia. "What is noise, where can it be heard, and what should we do with it?"