01 October, 2007

London Sound Archive

Following on from my meeting with Ken Livingstone (see The Sound of London post in this blog), I've written to him suggesting the setting up of a permanent London Sound Archive.

Every city has characteristic sounds, and the soundscape's elements change all the time. Many sounds I remember from my childhood have disappeared (police bells and whistles, rag-and-bone men, Routemaster buses, slam-door trains) and there are many more from history that I never heard or don't remember (tug boat whistles, street callers, steam trains in major stations). It would be wonderful to collect these historic sounds from private and public archives, and to add comprehensive recordings of current sounds ("Mind the gap!", tube trains, taxis, church bells and so on) - and then create a searchable, interactive archive accessible through the web and via interactive kiosks in public places frequented by tourists or researchers, such as railway stations, the British Library, museums and major attractions.

There are resources available: Peter Cusack’s project Your Favourite London Sounds (which exhibited in City Hall in 2003) will have many of the current sounds; the British Library Sound Archive contains great treasures in oral history and also in recorded soundscapes; the UK and Ireland Soundscape Community will be able to contribute richly… but a national (or maybe even international) appeal will uncover so much more that’s currently owned by Londoners and others, and once the tagging and bagging is done we will have created a unique and precious resource for the city.

I hope Mr Livingstone will support this project so we can create this in time for the 2012 explosion of interest in London.

The sound of London

The other day I attended the opening of the London Innovation Centre in Croydon. Not only is The Sound Agency a member, but we also created the restful but cognitively stimulating generative soundscape that plays in the reception area of the Centre. The opening was a big event, with hundreds attending and even a steel band playing. The Mayor of London gave an inspiring keynote speech about innovation in London, and about London's role as the world's financial and business hub.

I was delighted to meet Mr Livingstone after the formal proceedings, and chat for a few minutes about sound. He has a keen interest in reducing ambient noise levels, as evidenced by the Sounder City plan, written by the GLA's sound guru Max Dixon, which details London's ambient noise strategy. You can download the full plan or summaries of it here. This is the only comprehensive city noise plan that I know of, covering every aspect of noise in London and setting out detailed plans for reducing all of it.

This is important because noise is irritating, debilitating and a massive cost to the economy and to people's wellbeing. The EU estimated that noise damage is costing Europe "tens of billions of euro per year"; it also stated that "environmental noise, as emitted by transport, industry and recreation, is reducing the health and the quality of life of at least 25 per cent of the European population".

These estimates date back several years. Now there is evidence that noise has much more serious consequences: it kills. Just a few weeks ago, the World Health Organisation published the finding that around 3 per cent of the UK's 101,000 coronary deaths are due to noise. There is more, as summarised in The Guardian:
"The WHO's working group on the Noise Environmental Burden on Disease began work on the health effects of noise in Europe in 2003. In addition to the heart disease link, it found that 2% of Europeans suffer severely disturbed sleep because of noise pollution and 15% can suffer severe annoyance. Chronic exposure to loud traffic noise causes 3% of tinnitus cases, in which people constantly hear a noise in their ears."
Europe's population is around 730 million, so if these research findings are correct there are over 14 million people suffering severely disturbed sleep because of noise. As well as (presumably) tens of thousands of coronary deaths a year across Europe, one speculates on the horrific cost to the community: social and family costs as stress and fatigue cause relationship breakups, traffic accidents and domestic violence; and economic costs with tired people making expensive mistakes at work, as well as absenteeism, chronic sickness and negative effects on team and customer relationships due to irritability and tiredness.

Europe is measuring all this now, with noise maps compulsory for every member nation. But measurement is just the start: well done to the Mayor for going to the next level and putting in place policies to reverse the rising tide of noise, improve the quality of life of millions - and save hundreds of lives.