Nomadic Noise Residency Collaborators
Sheraz Khan - Urban Planner
Born and raised in Toronto, I took a turn towards urban planning because of my love of this city. Having grown up right beside Highway 427 out in Etobicoke, noise has always featured prominently in my image of Toronto. While planning typically tries to abate noise, I have found that noise and sounds make spaces memorable to people, and that perhaps planners should think more about what role the senses play in a person's quality of life. I wanted to participate in the Nomadic Noise Residency for these reasons.
On the old Eastern Avenue bridge, the sound of the DVP was deafening. It reminded me of where I grew up – in an apartment tower right next to Highway 427 in Etobicoke. The relationship between the homes, the highway and the noise were, I realized, also what also impacted the urban form in which I grew up.
I thought I’d take a ‘drive’ down the 427, from the airport, south to the Gardiner interchange. Driving (that is, scouring Google’s Street View) down, I noticed three forms that take their shape as a dialogue between people (residents) and the highway.
The first form I encountered is the closed corridor – the highway is lined with panels, making it a kind of opened-top tunnel. Residents tell the highway they will not entertain its incessant noise, and block themselves unceremoniously from it.
The second form is more open, with chain link fences and wide clear expanses. Emerging from the ‘tunnel’, drivers see a vast world open up to them. Towers are set far from the highway, with green space mediating an argument between the quiet voices of residents and the booming yell/scream/shriek of the highway.
The final form is total freedom, no fencing, no restraint. The highway stretches in all directions letting out its roar into dead space. If a car is on a highway and there are no residents nearby, does it make a noise?
The Eastern Avenue bridge was an anomaly. It let us hear the automotive pulse of Toronto in a pure form, where so many efforts are made to destroy the sound. Pure substances are often the most captivating, but also the most dangerous.
Toronto is awash with construction. Even underground, throughout Toronto’s PATH system, there are boards that request everyone’s patience: “We are renovating the city to serve you better, we apologize for the inconvenience.”
Walking through the PATH system from Brookfield Place to Union Station, I was struck by a variety of things: the amount of construction, the quality of sounds, the diversity of architecture and the fast pace of movement. In the PATH, people flowed from the financial reservoirs of downtown Toronto, down to the lake to be recirculated to the rest of Southern Ontario. Being flushed through these spaces (as my companion told me “just follow the people, they’ll probably get us to Union), made the whole experience somewhat dehumanizing – like a particle in a fast flowing stream.
Still, at each point during our slide through the PATH to Union Station, we were greeted with different forms of architecture – pipe-like tunnels, wide expansive rooms – that affected the smooth flow of people, each space echoing the flow differently. Underground, low ceilings made sounds sharp but stifling – the sound of many footsteps and crisp conversations. Above ground, especially in Union Station, high ceilings made atmospheric and echoing sounds, reflecting spaciousness and calmness.
Union Station Lower Level:
Union Station Upper Level:
During construction, businesses, services, etc. get shifted around, and people are generally asked to be patient, as if those things annoyed them. The apology is bidirectional – it pacifies anger, but simultaneously admits that the change is a problem that the person would (should?) be annoyed about.
So what if this was the case with sound? What if it Union Station’s Echo was put into storage during construction?
In Union Station, the atmospheric echo can be removed with a sound absorbing surface such as a heavy curtain or soundproofing foam covering the reverberating walls and roof. As my rough (very rough) sketch shows, the walls might inform commuters, saying, “Union Station’s Echo has been relocated during construction. We thank you for your patience, and apologize for any inconvenience.”
To relocate the sound, the underground portion of Union Station could be outfitted with recordings to recreate the large, echoing space of Union. By doing this, commuters might be made aware of the diversity of sound and architecture during their commute which might reduce the dehumanized ‘flush’ people experience on their way through the pipes of the PATH. Without disorienting commuters, this could humanize the walk by reminding people of the spatial relationship of sound and architecture, and their role as listeners.
In reality, this would probably not go through. But why not dream?
Walking through downtown Toronto is like wading through a fog of noise. The city is filled with noises – cars, people, vents, planes. Everyone contributes to this collective noise and equally consumes it. In the blindness of noise-making, we rarely realize the noise surrounding us and until we open our ears, we cannot connect noise and sound to spaces and places.
Surrounding each person is a 4-dimensional space of noise. Noise can be intercepted at any coordinate, or any height. As well, noise changes over time, shifting as the city moves through the day. At any moment, you experience a single point in the vast space of noise Framing these noises is the architecture of the city.
When walking through the city as part of our first adventure, I was struck by the different flavours of sound we encountered in this particular alleyway – O’Keefe Lane.
Walking north through the lane, we were first exposed to the sounds of traffic, mostly from Yonge St. and Shuter St. Passing through the corridor, we were insulated from the noise of traffic, and instead greeted by the hum of something mechanical (a vent, or pipe?). As we approached Dundas Square, the traffic returned, this time mixed with chattering people. It was as if we walked through a multicoloured mist, with each sound colouring the space differently.
I thought I’d try seeing what this might look like visually, translating my snapshot of this 4-dimensional sound into a single path picture. If I could represent traffic as a grey, people as green and the mechanical sounds as blue, the alleyway would look something like the strip below.
Mapping sound can give us new understandings of space – where an alleyway might have visually looked plain, the sound environment/soundscape suggests diversity.