Monthly Archives: March 2015

The sonic island: Urban noise and the value of isolation

Islands have long fueled an imaginary filled with the possibilities of mental and psychic escapes, whether indeed we are able to reach them or not. The desire to disconnect is relevant more broadly to concerns about growing urban noise levels which generate an invisible, yet no less perturbing, sensory layer. Can we find ways and means of creating island spaces, in physical or sensory terms, that allow us to traverse or strategically engage with our cities in ways that allow the personal management of noise exposure and the need to get away from it all – while largely remaining put. The strategies of urban citizens used to find quieter pathways, searching out oases of reduced sound and the widespread application of noise-reducing technologies suggest a deep-seated need for new kinds of islandness even while inhabiting the maximal points of population concentration that we find in cities. A clear focus of such tactics is to find control over, and freedom from, soundscapes where these impose a burden, distraction or even psychologically compressing and damaging experience. We may like noisy music, but less so if it is someone elses and the loss of control experienced in many neighbour disputes over noisy parties and lifestyles is perhaps the clearest expression of this problematic.

In our urban imaginaries the desire for escape which may also be realised as the search for real islands (such as the author’s search for quiet in the wonderful film Caro Diario, for example, as the travellers search for ever quieter and smaller islands after escaping the city to focus on writing). These needs were also expressed by the pioneers of the ambient music movement in the early 1990s where the phrase urban isolationism was regularly bandied around, as a means of encapsulating the search for a kind of ‘sonic island’ – a space-experience in which the body was cut-off from the density and penetrating noise of the city. Now we can find a widespread use of salt tanks, headphones, sound insulated bed pods, book-lined studies and noise reducing technologies which reflect an ongoing need for a therapeutic encounter with islandness within the city; the sense that with a reduction in the symbolic and auditory noise of contemporary life might come the ability to cope and flourish, all of this predicated on a form of escape that brings with it a greater sense of autonomy, control and meaning, whether this be through access to ‘real’ or metaphorical islands.

All of us need a place to retreat to, whether it be the home or another home-like space that offers the possibility of peace, escape and a sense of control in our lives. Where noise impinges from all sides in our lives the resulting stress is profound and debilitating. The desire to escape to the suburbs was arguably as much a wish to evade ‘The nerve wracking sleep-destroying noises of the city’ (Fogelson, 2005: 119) as it was to achieve newfound space standards and amenities. Even as technologies are developed to reduce noise or allow our shelter from it what Erving Goffman called the final ‘territory of the self’ is easily assailed by sonic intrusions of various kinds. Perhaps all cities need to ensure not only that housing regulations allow our homes to be free from noise but also that the fabric of the city contains planned calm spaces as well as parks (the two are not always synonymous and parks are not often found in central city areas) that enable decompression and freedom from noise. Precisely what such calmscapes might look like is perhaps the next challenge, but one that might be very popular!


Fogelson, R. (2005) Bourgeois Nightmares, New Haven: Yale University Press.