Category Archives: Anti-social behaviour

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.

The sonic ghetto

Sonic ghettos

Two fifths of the respondents to the 2008 National Noise Survey indicated that their quality of life suffered as a consequence of noise in their everyday lives. The density and concentration of urban life certainly produces variable and increasing stressors and sensitivities – but is this about poor neighbours or bad building regulations? How many fewer cases of noise stress, anti-social behaviour, noisy parties and other wicked urban problems might be faced-down by better sound insulation? Could this agenda be made to mesh with zero-carbon emission ambitions for buildings? A nice idea, surely. Noise needn’t be a source of community stress or a necessary by-product of the changing urban fabric. Noise is commonly held to be responsible for many psycho-social tensions, civil disputes and the ambient unease of much urban life. Noise is a subjective defined state of affairs – passing trains can be noisy but it is quite easy to become used to (soothed even) them over time. This designation is also shaped by social and spatial factors – the territories of everyday routines, journeys to work and, crucially, homes. For noise to penetrate the home is an insidious and deeply destabilising experience. I get anxious, angry and upset very quickly if I hear music near my home after a protracted experience of loud music from thoughtless students from a flat directly opposite mine in Glasgow years ago. Much such noise is people just doing what they do, not realising that their personal freedoms may generate inwardly hating, stressed and sleepless lives in those around them – some of it, on the other hand, is due to arrogance, displays of aggression and sonic/territorial claims to space through the use of sound-power. Just as good fences are needed to have good neighbours it is quite clear that solid walls and floors may be just as important.

Do not disturb, Rome

Noise isn’t an inevitable or inescapable aspect of urban life, to state this is to deny the possibility of making better buildings or better neighbours. This might on first glance be seen as the analytical realm of the architect, planner, regulator or the environmental scientist. However, as Jacques Attali pointed out in his book Noise, there is a distinctive ‘politics’ of noise and this is most clearly understood in terms of who experiences it, in what forms and with what consequences. As this would suggest, the distribution of noise is also a sociological matter that speaks to the issues of privacy, invasiveness and the zonal distribution of housing, buildings and services. Yet there is still a need to take up Robert Merton’s challenge in one of the first statements (from 1951) about a housing sociology that this should be concerned with the psychic pressures implied by rising urban density. For Merton housing studies should be very interested in the potential compromise of personal privacy and pressure generated by the kinds of new built environment springing up at that time, notably the new housing projects. This neatly leads us to the kind of sonic ghettos being generated by poorly constructed flats in the private sector, particularly since the advent of the urban renaissance under the UK Blair government – waterfronts and central city spaces populated by ranks of low quality buildings that don’t allow their residents a sense of privacy, autonomy and control over their daily lives. Stories of noisy neighbours, hearing people urinating upstairs, coughing, placing cups on hard surfaces in adjoining kitchens and, ahem, more private acts.

The effect of creating a built environment that pressures social subjects in these ways is not only to feel a loss of control from intrusion by others (neighbours no less) but also the sense of an impinging self-surveillance as expressivity and control within their primary social zone is reduced – if we can hear them, they can hear us! With this in mind their remains a need for urbanists to map the social power relations, the production of deficient built environments and the geographies of social stress generated by these effects. The deep misery of those affected requires us to consider such problems. The themes covered offer an agenda for developing further engagement by social scientists concerned with both the intangibility yet deeply affecting qualities of sound and noise in urban life today.

The silent lounge, Copenhagen airport