UMD Students Use Audio Recordings to Study Places
By Liam Farrell
Illustration by Jason Keisling
Growing up in Western Maryland, Lauren Gilmartin knew spring was coming by the trills and chirps of birds outside her bedroom window.
Now that she’s studying at the University of Maryland for a dual master’s degree in architecture and community planning, Gilmartin is thinking more about how built spaces are experienced through not just sight and touch, but hearing.
She was part of a spring community planning class that used “soundscapes”—recordings students made as they walked through parts of the Baltimore-D.C. area—to understand how people experience places with a sense that can often be overlooked during planning and design.
“We love census data, economic analyses and GIS maps,” says Ariel Bierbaum, assistant professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, who taught the course. “(But) no one is studying planning because we want to crunch data for data’s sake. We’re here because we want to make joyful, inspiring places that support people’s lives and livelihoods.”
Community planners, she says, have to learn how to become active listeners: Ambient noise from air conditioners in a lakeside community can show how hard it is to truly design a “natural” setting; people sweeping their sidewalks can give a window into how residents care for it.
“The sounds of the city actually give us useful information,” says Bierbaum, who first learned about soundscapes at a 2017 conference and sees them used more in research fields like environmental studies and ethnomusicology than in planning.
Each of her 23 students was tasked with visiting a place, bigger than a building but smaller than a city, and recording a walk through it. Sites ranged from the trails around Lake Artemesia in College Park to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and the student work is being posted online in a partnership with CoLab Radio at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Gilmartin made recordings in six Baltimore neighborhoods of different economic levels. She found more affluent areas came with the sounds of birds, vehicles and other pedestrians, whereas more economically depressed sections were frequently quiet—“you could almost only hear my footsteps.” Lacking common spaces, socializing in those poorer neighborhoods often took place outside on stoops.
“(Sound) is sort of a subconscious thing that you are designing for,” she says. “There’s a reason people enjoy Mount Vernon’s park. People like the sounds of the city.”
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