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City Soundscapes


In the city, I hear idling engines and revving engines, yelling and laughter as people pass by on the sidewalk, construction crews and garbage trucks and an urban doorbell (for the uninitiated: that would be the blasting of a car horn when someone doesn’t want to be bothered with exiting their vehicle when picking someone else up). But as spring approaches, I also hear birds. Many birds, glorious birds. They say that March is “In like a lion, out like a lamb.” But where I live, it’s been all lamb so far this year, and clearly the birds find a lamb much more approachable than a lion. Already these birds are numerous and loud.


As I hear those chirps and chitters, I feel myself relax – my shoulders, my breathing, my mind even. And I anticipate the coming months of warmth and lush, green growth.


The Allegheny Front, an amazing radio programing covering environmental issues, recently ran a brief piece about efforts by the National Park Service (NPS) to preserve soundscapes - in this case in Pawnee National Grassland in northern Colorado. They’re researching the ways in which man-made sound can drown out natural sound: “And as more and more research links our well-being to what we hear, [scientists] are pointing to natural sound as something to be managed—and even protected.” I was delighted to learn that the National Park Service is behind such efforts, and they have plenty online describing their efforts, as well as educational resources.


My own city of Pittsburgh has been working to strengthen its noise ordinance. This will, hopefully, protect residents’ right to quiet, to hear only (or mostly) just what they want to hear. But what are we doing to protect the sources of natural sounds in cities, much less act proactively to encourage life-giving sounds, such as rushing water, wind through tree leaves, and those chittering birds? Not everyone wants to hear those sounds either, I suppose, but research shows that natural sounds do help lessen anxiety, improve mood, and make us more productive. Protection from some of that man-made urban hubbub can help, but what NPS equivalent is studying and conserving natural sounds in the city?


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