Sound and the City
Experiences of Urban Sound and Quietness in Amsterdam
Student no.: 11049944
Research Master Urban Studies Graduate School of Social Sciences Universiteit van Amsterdam
Supervisor: prof. dr. Jan Rath Second reader: dr. Olga Sezneva
Word count: 23.723
Cover illustration by © 2021 Photowall ®
Those who have conducted research and written a thesis, know it can feel like a lonely process.
But it is never a one-person job. Therefore I would like to dedicate a few words to those who have helped me along the way. First of all, I would like to thank my thesis supervisor and personal sound board, prof. dr. Jan Rath, for encouraging me to explore my own academic interests and providing me with countless rounds of feedback and advise. Under your supervision I have felt trusted and capable, and inspired by your down-to-earth humour, sociological knowledge and endless personal anecdotes. I would also like to express my gratitude to those PhD-candidates under Jan Rath’s supervision, who have given me practical and theoretical advise on the unfolding research proposal. I would like to thank sound experts Erik Roelofsen and dr. Tjeerd Andringa, who have taken the time to answer all my sound- related questions and share with me their deep and broad knowledge on sound, noise and quietness. Also a big thanks to my fellow students at the Research Master Urban Studies for sharing their motivations, doubts and enthusiasm. Although these past two years did not go as planned, I’m glad we got to spend some of it together. Furthermore, I would like to thank my boyfriend, colleagues, friends and family that supported me throughout the whole process and were always there to listen to my indecisiveness, frustrations and hopes. Your kind hearts and words have meant the world. And last, but certainly not least, I am so grateful for all the participants in this study, for sharing your time and stories with me. You are the core of this research.
This study aims to provide a complementary and deeper qualitative understanding of the experience of urban sound and quietness, by answering the research question “how are urban sound and quietness defined, experienced and valuated by urban residents and how are those experiences linked to the context of perception?”. For this research, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 32 Amsterdam residents from two city districts; Centrum and Nieuw West.
In these interviews, it was found that quietness is a polysemantic and ambiguous concept which can be interpreted in different and holistic ways. Quietness is often understood a) in relation to silence, b) as an acoustic environment or a holistic sensorial experience, and c) as a setting, state of mind or atmosphere that relates to calmness and tranquillity. In terms of acoustics, quietness is not the absence of sound, but rather the absence of noise, which is understood as the opposite of quietness. The value of quietness and the need for it was often expressed implicitly by urban residents, largely depending on personal preferences and needs, environmental circumstances, and levels of sound sovereignty. These findings also show that the experience of urban sound and quietness cannot be decontextualised, as it is informed by the place, time and social setting in which it is perceived. The pleasantness of the urban acoustic environment is judged largely on the appropriateness of sound for a given place and time. But it not only matters where or when sounds are perceived, also who produces those sounds. The evaluation of sound can thus be a useful indicator for quality of social relations in the city, feeling at home, sense of belonging, conflict, and harmony. Overall, The changes in the soundscape of Amsterdam during the Covid-19 pandemic have revealed and emphasised the importance of acoustic environments and quietness for our health, wellbeing, and happiness in the city.
Acknowledgements ... 2
Abstract ... 4
1. Introduction: Sound and the City ... 7
2. Research Questions ... 10
3. Why study Urban Sound and Quietness? ... 12
4. Theoretical Framework ... 14
4.1 Defining Urban Sound ... 14
4.1.1 Quietness & Silence ... 14
4.1.2 Noise ... 15
4.2 The Need for Quietness ... 16
4.2.1 Health, Wellbeing, and Age ... 16
4.2.2 Access to Quietness ... 17
4.2.3 Introducing a New Concept: Sound Sovereignty ... 19
4.3 Sound in Context: a Situational Experience ... 20
4.3.1 Spatial Context: the Importance of Place ... 20
4.3.2 The Social Context: Sound and the Social ... 22
4.3.3 The Temporal context: Sound and Time ... 22
5. Methodology ... 25
5.1 Qualitative Understanding and the Soundscape Approach ... 25
5.1 Two Case Studies: Amsterdam Centrum and Nieuw-West ... 25
5.2 Data Collection: Participants and Interviews ... 29
5.3 Qualitative Data Analysis ... 30
5.4 Reflections on the Research Process: Validity & Dependability ... 31
6 Findings ... 33
6.1 The Meaning of Urban Sound: Quietness and Noise ... 33
6.1.1 What is Quietness? ... 33
6.1.2 What is Noise? ... 37
6.2 The Need for Quietness ... 39
6.2.1 Personal Preferences and Needs ... 41
6.2.2 Environmental Circumstances and Access to Quietness: Two City Districts ... 42
6.2.3 Sound Sovereignty: Control and the Element of Choice ... 45
6.3 Urban Sound, Quietness and the Context of Experience... 48
6.3.1 The Importance of Place: Sound in the City... 48
6.3.2 Sound and the Social: the Lively City ... 52
6.3.3 Timing is Everything: Urban sound, Quietness and the context of Time... 56
7 Conclusion and Discussion... 61
7.1 Summary of Findings ... 61
7.2 Theoretical Implications and Contributions ... 63
8 References ... 65
9 Appendix ... 70
Appendix A: Two City Districts: Additional Maps... 70
Appendix B: Recruiting Participants & Research Locations ... 72
Appendix C: Topic List Interviews ... 75
1. Introduction: Sound and the City
When thinking of cities and urban life, quietness is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Cities are often imagined just as loud as they are lively, with busy shopping streets, bustling night life, noisy traffic, loud music, and a cacophony of human voices. But despite it often being unnoticed and pushed to the background, quietness actually is a vital part of living in the city.
Life in the city has been an object of sociological interest since the late eighteen hundreds, with almost all the classical thinkers theorising about urban life and its effect on people and their societies. While some writers like Marx, Engels, and Durkheim were optimistic about the long-term opportunities and new personal freedoms the city could provide, others, like Tönnies and Simmel, were more pessimistic and wary about its deleterious effects on social cohesion, the danger of social inequality and increased stratification, and not least about its effect on the urban dwellers’ mental health. Already in 1903, it was Georg Simmel who wrote in ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ about the effect of the city on the mental state of the urbanite. He called it the blasé attitude (p. 26); a seemingly indifferent and detached attitude towards people and the environment. He described that attitude as a necessary way for city dwellers to deal with the constant overstimulation that the city produces, and to cope with the city’s overflowing sights, smells, and sounds. Similarly, Louis Wirth (1938) talked about the ‘overstimulating city’
and Stanley Milgram wrote about the ‘overload’ of experiences in cities and our social psychological adaptations to it (1970, p. 1461). So the observation that it can be a challenge to deal with the city’s bombardment of nervous stimuli such as sound, is not new. But even now, more than a century after Simmel’s essay came out, it is still relevant and necessary to think about the way cities influence our lives and how we cope with, and hopefully enjoy, the sounds they produce.
In line with this historic tradition, across academic disciplines, more recent literature on urban sound mainly concerns itself with the issue of noise. Especially the growing concern over environmental pollution and the negative effect of human activity on our natural and urban environment has resulted in increasing attention to the role of sound, noise, and quietness in urban life and human health. This has led a growing number of researchers to stress that a degree of quietness and a healthy sonic environment is important for a person’s physical and mental wellbeing (World Health Organisation, 2017, pp. 100-101; Booi & Van den Berg, 2012, p. 1037; Gidlöf-Gunnersson & Öhrström, 2007, p. 115).
But more often than not, these studies are based on quantitative measures of sound. They aim towards the abatement of noise which results in policies based on decibel norms and estimated sound levels, rather than being informed by situational and context-dependent knowledge. In other words, little is known about the sociological side of sound, the subjective and lived experience of urban sound and the need for quietness.
This gap is where the soundscape approach steps in, which has been a major inspiration to this research. Namely, one of the main critiques on approaching urban sound solely through physical measurements and noise abatement is that the reduction of noise levels has not led to an improvement and understanding of living conditions or quality of live in urban areas (Kang, et al., 2016, p. 284; Van Kempen, Devilee, Swart & van Kamp, 2014, p. 3). In contrast, the soundscape approach aims towards understanding meaning and the role of context in people’s perception of sound within their living environments. Within this approach, it is not the quantity of decibels but rather the quality of the experience that counts. Because, “sound, especially within the urban environment, is never a neutral phenomenon” (Arkette, 2004, p. 160).
Although soundscape research has been on the rise since the early 2000s (Kang, et al., 2016, p. 285), the way sound is experienced in relation to the urban environment is still largely left unstudied. It is exactly this qualitative knowledge on the individual experience of urban sound and quietness in relation to the urban context that is the main topic of exploration in this study, and answers the question: How are urban sound and quietness defined, experienced and valuated by urban residents and how are those experiences linked to the context of perception?
This research aims to dive deeper into the sound concepts so often used in sound research, but which meanings are often presented as though they exist in a vacuum, outside the context of experience. Firstly, exploring the meanings and interpretations of concepts such as quietness, silence, and noise, will help understand the experience of sound through the ears of the perceiver. Interviews and conversations with residents in two city districts of Amsterdam unveil some of the normative values surrounding the pleasantness of sound or the unpleasantness of noise, giving insight into what the city does and should sound like. Furthermore, the importance of and need for quietness - as so often emphasised in the literature – is explored among these residents, deducting what might inform this (lack) of need and whether any notable differences exist between the two districts. Here, a new concept is introduced: Sound sovereignty; the perceived and actual ability to exercise a certain level of control over the acoustic environment.
This concepts serves as a sociological connection between the experience of sound and the ability to control it. Lastly, the experience of urban sound and quietness are placed in the context of experience, exploring the relation sound holds to spatial, social and temporal settings. The
importance of place, social connections, and the Covid-19 crisis are some of themes that will be discussed within these contexts. This study aims to provide a deeper and richer understanding of the sonic experience of the city that might in inspire scholars, policy makers and planners to create pleasant acoustic environments, and healthier cities.
Before presenting the findings of this research, the relevance of studying urban sound is emphasised, followed by an elaboration on the methodology of this study and a theoretical background of the relevant literature. But first of all, the research questions are presented and explained in the following chapter.
2. Research Questions
The beforementioned lack of qualitative and contextual knowledge on the experience of urban sound an quietness has led to the following research question to be answered in this study:
How are urban sound and quietness defined, experienced and valuated by urban residents and how are those experiences linked to the context of perception?
To answer this question, it has been divided into three sub questions. These sub question shape the structure of the study, with the findings pertaining each question constituting a chapter.
These sub questions are presented and elaborated on below.
Sub question 1:
How are urban sound, quietness, silence and noise defined, understood, and experienced by urban residents?
This first sub questions aims to shed light on the practical and lived experience of the theoretical sound concepts quietness, silence and noise. As can be discovered in the chapter on theory below, these concepts are often clearly defined and distinguished from one another in the literature, but their situational meaning are often left unstudied.
Sub question 2:
To what extent do urban residents express a need for quietness and what major personal and environmental factors relate to the degree of this need?
This questions is heuristic in nature; part of studying the evaluation of sound and quietness entails exploring whether Amsterdam residents express a certain level of need for quietness. It is expected that an expressed need for quietness can bring to light new information about the perceived soundscape of Amsterdam and the importance of healthy acoustic environment. This question is based on literature in which the need for quietness is emphasised based on a handful of factors such as health and wellbeing, and access to quietness. There is no doubt that the dangers of exposure to noise imply an inherent need for quietness to balance out the negative health effect, but the question here is whether city dwellers personally experience and express that need as well. By answering this question, it is also investigated whether any notable
differences exist between the residents of the two city districts; Amsterdam Centrum and Amsterdam Nieuw West.
Sub question 3:
How do the meanings of urban sounds relate to the spatial, social and temporal context in which they are experienced? And what are the main differences and similarities between the
two city districts therein?
The last sub question focusses on the situational and contextual experience of urban sound and quietness and also incorporates a comparative element. One of the main premises in this study is that sound is never experienced in a vacuum and has no objective meaning, but is rather informed by the settings in which it is experienced. Therefore, it is investigated how the different urban sound concepts of silence, quietness and noise are experienced in relation to those settings and whether those experiences differ between the Centrum and Nieuw-West districts of Amsterdam.
3. Why study Urban Sound and Quietness?
Studying almost any urban environment is inherently relevant due to the increasing urbanisation of the globe, with now approximately 55 percent of the world’s population living in cities. The Netherlands is way ahead of this trend with even more than 90 percent of the country being urbanised (UN, 2018). And partly due to growing urbanisation, environmental noise pollution is increasing, too (EEA, 2019). The Dutch Ministry of Public Health, Wellbeing & Sports already warned against the increasing scarcity of silence in The Netherlands, especially against the backdrop of a societal need for calm and quietness (2006, p. 9). Within this context, it is increasingly important to think of healthy and sustainable ways to live together in these urban areas. And although much focus has been put on the visual aspects of urban life, sound, noise and quietness are a vital part of living in the city, too. For example, in Amsterdam, the increasingly negative appraisal of Amsterdam Centrum and steady unsatisfaction about Amsterdam Nieuw West’s liveability cannot be viewed separately from issues surrounding noise annoyance (Gemeente Amsterdam, 2019b, pp. 3,9.; ibid., 2020.). Similarly, a record number of reported neighbour nuisance and conflicts during the Covid-19 pandemic (Centrum voor Criminaliteitspreventie en Veiligheid, 2021), shows the pressing issue of sound in urban living.
It is not only interesting for scholars or policy makers to learn more about sound and the city, as the topic has major societal relevance too. Especially in regard to health and wellbeing, our acoustic environments can have a major impact on the way we feel, physically and mentally, both in the short and long term. In this light, it is not surprising that most research on urban sound, noise, and quietness focusses on negative health effects and are often aimed at reducing environmental noise. Some of the most common negative health effects of noise are noise annoyance, sleep disturbance, increased stress levels, cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, and tinnitus (Andringa & Lanser, 2013, p. 1444; Shepherd, Welch, Dirks &
McBride, 2013, p. 1300; Gidlöf-Gunnarsson & Öhrström, 2007, p. 116). And according to a study by the World Health Organisation (2017), “at least one million healthy life years are lost every year from traffic-related noise in the western parts of Europe.” (p. xvii). They also state that noise is “the second worst environmental cause of ill health, behind only ultra-fine particulate matter air pollution” (European Environmental Agency, 2014, p. 6).
In contrast to noise, quietness is proven to counterbalance these negative effects of noise and has a restorative quality (Kaplan, 1995; Shepherd, et al., 2013, p. 1300; Gidlöf-Gunnarsson
& Öhrström, 2007, p. 116). Especially the low levels of sensory stimuli in quiet places help
deal with stress and enhance feelings of wellbeing and tranquillity. In short, the importance of quietness and a healthy acoustic environment should not be overlooked, nor underestimated.
However, much less is written about the restorative effect of quietness, or the influence of a healthy sonic environment on the everyday experience of living in the city (Herranz- Pascual et al., 2019, p. 3). And although studies on the health effects of quietness - such as the restorative qualities of quiet places - do exist, they often lack a subjective dimension, a qualitative exploration and explanation of the lived experience of sound and quietness (Devilee, Maris & Van Kamp, 2010, p. 21). This brings us to the academic relevance of studying urban sound and quietness.
Most research on urban sound has focused on noise and use mainly quantitative sound levels to indicate a sonic environment as either noisy or quiet. However, increasingly more scientists agree that a complimentary qualitative approach is imperative to understanding soundscapes, because mere focus on decibels has had limited effects so far (Adams, Cox, Moore, Croxford, Refaee & Sharples, 2006, p. 2395). And this should not be surprising, since many of the negative health effects that were mentioned are about how it makes people feel, which is, according to Andringa et al. “fundamentally at odds with both a human-as-dB-meter or a loudness-is-toxic paradigm” (2013, p. 2740). Consequently, it is increasingly understood that “qualitative knowledge and the experience of people ‘in the field’ can likewise make a major contribution to the debate on the social significance of exposure to and the enjoyment of silence and the importance of quiet areas” (Ministerie van Volksgezondheid, Welzijn & Sport, 2006, p. 22).
It is exactly this much needed contribution to the qualitative knowledge on the individual experience of urban sound and quietness in relation to the urban context that this study aims to provide.
4. Theoretical Framework
In this chapter, literature on urban sound and quietness are presented that are most relevant to the research questions of this study. First, and in accordance to the first sub-research question, the main concepts surrounding urban sound are elaborated on. The way quietness, silence and noise are defined in current literature serve as theoretical building blocks and points of departure for a comparison to their lived experience and practical use by residents of Amsterdam.
Secondly, before presenting the findings on the extent to which Amsterdam residents express a need for quietness, it is important to understand what is already known about this need, and which factors are prominently presented in the literature in relation to it. Lastly, literature regarding sound and quietness in relation to the context in which it is experienced is discussed;
the situational experience of sound in the city.
4.1 Defining Urban Sound
4.1.1 Quietness & Silence
In academic literature, silence is clearly distinguished from quietness. Silence refers to the complete absence of sound whereas quietness is the absence of noise, meaning the absence of unwanted and negative experience of sound, often originating from traffic, industry, construction, or recreational activities. Thus, quietness is also described as a pleasant sonic environment (Shepherd, et al., 2013, p. 1285;; Booi & Van den Berg, 2012, p. 1032; European Environmental Noise Directive (END), 2002; World Health Organization Europe, n.d). And although the distinction between ‘quietness’ and ‘silence’ is clearly demarcated, the subjective experience, practical use, and individual understanding of these concepts by Amsterdam residents may not line up with this theoretical distinction. Therefore, the findings will show how participants conceptualise and understand the words ‘quietness’ and ‘silence’. In the following methodology chapter (section 5.4), extra attention is given to the issue of translating quietness and silence to Dutch during data analysis.
In studies and policies using quantitative measures of sound, quietness is often understood in terms of decibels and sound limits. However, the criteria for what constitutes a
‘quiet area’ differ between cities and countries, ranging between limits lower than 40 to 55 decibels (Booi & Van den Berg, 2012, p. 1032). In those studies, the emphasis is not on what makes an acoustic environment pleasant, but on the maximum sound pressure a quiet area is allowed to have, fixed in sound norms not to be exceeded. Although such sound limits have
some practical value for policy makers and developers, the question of what quietness means has not been answered.
However, in recent soundscape literature, quietness is recognised as more than just an acoustic experience. Namely, the more holistic subjective experience of quietness is often related to a certain atmosphere, a state of being, and the experience of tranquillity (Watts &
Pheasant, 2015, p. 122). Furthermore, if the term quietness is used to describe a place or time, it often means a lack of activity, excitement or disturbance (Andringa & Lanser, 2013, p. 1440).
In this study, quietness is taken not as an objective measure of sound, but a subjective experience that may not exclusively be an acoustic one. As Booi & Van den Berg (2012) aptly state: “A pleasant sonic environment or soundscape is characterized by the presence of meaningful sounds that concur with the character of the area. The experience of the environment is supplemented by other sensory perceptions: we also see, smell and feel (wind, warmth) the environment. In a tranquil area the total impression is harmonic and no single perception is dominant” (p. 1032). In this study, attention is paid to the more-than-sonic character of quietness and the holistic ways in which it is experienced by Amsterdam residents, especially in relation to the context of experience.
As mentioned before, the lion’s share of literature on urban sound focusses mainly on noise and its negative effects on urban life and human health. In mainstream planning and policy practices and research, sound is often equalled with noise and public nuisance and treated as a waste product of cities and urban life (Bild, Coler, Pfeffer & Bertolini, 2016, p. 420; Adams, et al., 2006, p. 2385). In these mainstream studies and reports, sound levels are measured in decibels to create sound limits, or sound norms (often 55 decibels, or higher) which should not be exceeded to avoid noise disturbance (Booi & van den Berg, 2012, p. 1034).
But in this study, the concept of noise is not a matter of decibels, but taken as the theoretical opposite of quietness; noise is the presence of unwanted and unpleasant sound. Most unwanted sounds are caused by industrial sound, such as traffic or machinery, whereas pleasant sounds often originate from natural sources (Shepherd, et al., 2013, p. 1285; Booi & Van den Berg, 2012, pp. 1031-2). But what is unwanted stands in relation to what is needed in a given situation or activity, emphasising the subjective and contextual nature of sound. As Andringa
& Lanser state: “noise is unwanted sound given one’s current needs, goals, and activities”
(2013, p. 1443). When sound is regarded as too loud, unexpected and intrusive, it is often
experienced as unwanted, and thus as noise (Van Kempen, Devilee, Swart & Van Kamp, 2014, p. 383). Most importantly, noise is understood as sound that brings discomfort to people (Brown, 2011, p. 3).
One of the main aims of this study is to investigate what is considered quiet, silent or noisy by residents of Amsterdam and how, when, and where they are experienced. These findings will show that quietness or noise are much more than just staying within or exceeding sound levels in decibels, but that it is a more holistic experience, one that is highly relative and contextual, thus situated in place and time.
4.2 The Need for Quietness
As beforementioned, one of the main drivers behind research on sound is the growing concern over noise pollution in cities and consequent health risks, consequently stressing the need for quietness (World Health Organisation, 2017, pp. 100-101; Booi & Van den Berg, 2012, p. 1037;
Gidlöf-Gunnersson & Öhrström, 2007, p. 115). According to Booi & van den Berg, who researched the need for quietness in Amsterdam, this need is quite universal (2012, p. 1036).
But in this study, it is questioned whether that need for quietness is alive and expressed among residents of Amsterdam, and what might inform that need, or lack of it. In academic literature, the need for quietness is often linked to a handful of prominent factors that might relate to that need: health, wellbeing and age, and access to quietness.
4.2.1 Health, Wellbeing, and Age
As noted in the introduction, a large body of literature on urban sound is related to the negative effects of noise on human health. The concern over noise pollution and its deleterious health effects form one of the main reasons for conducting research on this topic and is often the main argument for the importance of accessible quiet areas (World Health Organisation, 2017, pp.
100-101; Booi & Van den Berg, 2012, p. 1037; Gidlöf-Gunnersson & Öhrström, 2007;
Berglund, et al., 1999; Health Council of the Netherlands, 2006). For example, the concern over the relationship between noise, quietness, and health form the basis of many health and planning institutes such as the European Union’s Environmental Noise Directive (Thorne & Shepherd, 2013, p. 2742; Shepherd, et al., 2013). From these studies, it follows that persons suffering from health problems both related and unrelated to exposure to noise, would have a higher need for quietness and other restorative places.
In a survey research on Amsterdam, Booi & Van den Berg (2012) showed that the need for a certain amount of quietness seems universal in all age groups, although some differences do seem to exist. Older people and people in poor health have a larger need for quietness than young people with relatively good health. Younger people are more likely to be exposed to urban noise, but are also less likely to be annoyed by it. In contrast, older people show little noise annoyance, but do report a higher need for quietness. It is mostly the middle-aged group that shows the highest sensitivity to noise annoyance, which can be related to stress from busy lifestyles, high workloads and social demands this age group has to manage (Von Szombathely, 2018, p. 18; Riedel, et al., 2014, p. 1403; Booi & Van den Berg, 2012, p. 1036). Although a wide array of ages are represented in this study (ranging between 20 and 77 years old), no participants mentioned being ill.
In this study, although no statistical research is done on the correlation between age, health and the experience of sound, it is explored whether these beforementioned themes come to the fore in relation to an expressed need for quietness.
4.2.2 Access to Quietness
Important in understanding the need for quietness is the role of access to quietness, in particular through nature and green areas. The access to quietness, both indoors and outdoors, reduces noise annoyance and benefits health (Öhrström, Skanberg, Svensson & Gunnarsson, 2006, p.
420). Although quietness is experienced differently by many people, it is often related to nature, green spaces and natural sounds such as birdsong, flowing water or wind rustling in the trees.
Not necessarily sounds that you would immediately associate with urban life.
These natural or green areas serve as restorative places, places that counterbalance the negative health effects of noise by their lack of stimuli which enhance psychological wellbeing (Kaplan, 1995, p. 173). This means that “A city can be very noisy, but that is less a problem if its inhabitants have access to quiet places: a quiet home and a quiet place outdoors” (Booi &
Van den Berg, 2012, p. 1046). Interestingly, in his discussion of the Attenion Restoration Theory (ART), Kaplan discusses the need for restorative places to recover from ‘directed attention fatigue’, which might remind the reader of the ‘overstimulation’, ‘overload’, or
‘bombardment’ of nervous stimuli that the city produces according to Simmel (1903), Wirth (1938) and Milgram (1970), mentioned in the introduction.
Since pleasant sonic environments and quietness are often characterised by natural sounds and other natural elements (Booi & Van den Berg, 2012, pp. 1031-2), it follows that
quiet areas an restoratives places in cities are often found in and around urban parks, green spaces and waterways (Shepherd, et al., 2013, p. 1300). However, what we can learn from Environmental Justice studies is that the exposure to noise and access to quiet natural areas is not evenly spread among all urban dwellers in or between cities (Von Szombathely, et al., 2018;
Verbeek, 2019; Mohai, Pellow & Roberts, 2009). Some people might live in areas with higher exposures to noise pollution, for example near busy roads, industry, highways or airports, whereas others live on a quiet street near urban greenery.
Therefore, access to quietness is also determined by where and how you live. Especially in relatively (deemed) noisy environments, it is important people have a place to retreat to for some peace and quietness, and for many of us, this place is home. The home is an important restorative place, which should be protected for the health and wellbeing for urban residents.
The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and The Environment published a rapport with policy recommendations following results on the positive health effects of having a ‘quiet facade’ on the home (Van Kempen & van Beek, 2013, p. 3). The ideal restorative function of the home environment is described by Andringa & Lanser: “A good home, and more generally any place we have a positive emotional bond with, provides a diversity of options for self- selected adaptive behaviour. Poor quality homes and/or neighbourhoods reduce these options”
(2013, p. 1445).
It can be discerned from this quote that the home is a place where someone should be able to make their own decisions regarding its atmosphere and their activities in it, which can be aided or restrained by the quality of houses. Bad design or insufficient isolation, for example, can severely minimise the level of control the inhabitant has over their acoustic environment, and consequently, their access to quietness.
The access to quietness is thus often informed by economic restrictions that dictate possible choices of residential location and quality (Von Szombathely, et al., 2018, p. 11;
Verbeek, 2019, p. 1). So not only public quietness in the form of parks and urban greenery are unevenly spread over an urban environment, private quietness too is often unequally distributed across an urban population (Biguenet, 2015; Schama, 2014; White, 2018; Petrarca, 2017;
Kooyman, 2019). Especially in a city like Amsterdam, which is experiencing a housing crisis with a record low of available housing for low- and middle-income households, the options for affordable housing are extremely scarce (Het Parool, 2021). This means that many people have limited control over the ability to access quietness or live in their preferred environments. It is easier to get away from unpleasant noise or an excess of stimuli when you have a quiet, well isolated house to return to, or when you can put on your noise-cancelling headphones, which
are relatively expensive. So, the importance of access to quietness is emphasises the importance of the element of control over one’s acoustic environment, and resulted in formation of a new concept, which will be discussed next.
4.2.3 Introducing a New Concept: Sound Sovereignty
An important theme related to the access to quietness and quality green restorative places, which is a relatively new topic and under-emphasised in current sound literature, is the element of control in relation to the evaluation of an acoustic environment. Andringa & Lanser (2013) stress the importance of individuals’ level of control over the activities of the mind, rather than the content of the mind being dictated by the environment (such as by noise); “unwanted sound is unwanted because it reduces options to address one’s needs, which builds up the need for quietness and the associated restorative benefits” (p. 1444). In other words, a quiet or pleasant sonic environment enables a person to control their preferred mind-states, such as relaxation or focus. The “audible indications of safety” in these quiet environments enable the brain to become less alert and more relaxed, thus leading to a pleasant mind-set (Ibid., p. 1440). Sounds that disturb this mind-set are experienced as unwanted, and thus as noise, consequently increasing the need for quietness. However, Andringa & Lanser (2013) take on a cognitive science perspective rather than the sociological one adopted in this study. Another, more sociological study by Adams et al. (2006) also mentions the element of control, stating: “the whole context of the noise, its source, distance from the noise, its longevity and perceived level of control over it, all play a part in a person’s response to it and whether they would want to see it eliminated from their soundscape” (p. 2394). However, the mechanisms behind this finding is left unexplored and the relation between perceived control and evaluation of sound is left unexplained.
To understand the mechanisms behind the element of control and the evaluation of sound, I propose a new concept, namely ‘sound sovereignty’; the perceived and actual ability to exercise a certain level of control over the acoustic environment. Whereas Andringa &
Lanser focus on control in relation to a mind state as the effect of a quiet environment, sound sovereignty is directed towards perceived control as an influence on evaluating an acoustic environment as either pleasant or unpleasant and thus influencing the need for quietness. I propose here that the way sound is evaluated – as either noise, quietness, or anything in between – is influenced by the extent of our actual and perceived control over it, thus by our level of sound sovereignty. Sound sovereignty as a concept functions as a sociological connection between results from different studies, disciplines and perspectives such as cognitive science,
acoustics, spatial planning, and environmental justice. Connecting the social elements of power and inequality to spatial characteristics (such as loudness or vicinity of green areas) and psychological factors (such as reactions to safety or danger), places the study of sound firmly into the (urban) sociological realm and can be a fruitful concept for further study. For example, the vicinity of green and quiet areas near the home is known to reduce overall noise annoyance and benefit health (Ohrstrom et al., 2006, p. 40). However, how the vicinity of high quality quiet green spaces actually impacts our overall wellbeing and evaluation of sound is not yet understood (Kang et al., 2016, p. 287). Sound sovereignty might be a part of that understanding;
for example, the person’s actual and perceived access to quietness might invoke a sense of control over the acoustic environment, the feeling that there is always some quietness at their disposal if they might need it, that they have a choice in their acoustic environment.
This study will question whether and how these aforementioned factors, such as personal preferences, the access to quietness and sound sovereignty, play a role in participants’
experience of urban sound and expressed need for quietness.
4.3 Sound in Context: a Situational Experience
One of the main premises of this study is that sound is not experienced in a vacuum, but in a certain context that informs not only what sounds can be heard, but also how those sounds are evaluated. The pleasantness or unpleasantness of certain sound is never objective nor universal, but highly influenced by the appropriateness of the sound for the space, time and social context in which it is experienced (Jo & Jeon, 2020, p. 106975; Bruce & Davies, 2014; Aletta, Kang &
Axelsson, 2016, p. 68; Botteldooren, De Coensel & De Muer, 2006). These contexts or settings are separated here for theoretical purposes, but are in practice inherently intertwined and interconnected, feeding back into each other in countless and complex ways. Nevertheless, these context are separately discussed here in terms of their influence on and relation to the experience of urban sound an quietness.
4.3.1 Spatial Context: the Importance of Place
A quote that has been previously used in this study which aptly illustrates the context dependency of the sonic experience, is one by Booi & Van den Berg (2012) on quiet places in Amsterdam: “a pleasant sonic environment or soundscape is characterized by the presence of meaningful sounds that concur with the character of the area” (p. 1032). In other words, how
sounds are experienced and evaluated by the listener, largely depend on the place where it is perceived and the sonic expectations people have of that place. In this section, literature on the different spatial settings in people’s direct living environments will be discussed. In contrast to most soundscape studies, the focus is not on public spaces such as squares or parks, but includes the private and direct living environment. The literature will provide some of the theoretical underpinnings on the experience of sound in relation to the home, the neighbourhood, and of course, the city.
The Home, the Neighbourhood, and the City
As previously described, the home provides an important restorative environment where one can enjoy the benefits of quietness that balance out the negative effects of noise. Therefore, the home should be a place that facilitates activities and states-of-mind such as sleeping and concentrating. Being able to rest in one’s home when needed is essential for both physical and mental wellbeing. If this ability is hindered by, for example, noise, this can cause severe annoyance, and consequently, negative health effects (Babisch, 2002, p. 4). And as noted before, a pleasant acoustic environment is comprised of sounds that suit the character of that environment (Booi & Van den Berg, 2012). Thus what is regarded as pleasant or quiet at home, depends on the level of appropriateness of the perceived sounds and whether they concur with the preferred setting of the inhabitants.
Not only is the home a place for restoration, it is also a place where one can feel at home. What is most important in feeling at home is to feel comfortable and safe, and being able to ‘be yourself’ and undertake one’s own favourite activities (Duyvendak, 2011, p. 38). Again, the home environment can be interpreted as a space where ideally the resident has a certain level of control over the environment and thus the ability to engage in preferred activities. Not limited to the home, feeling at home can be experienced on bigger scales such as the neighbourhood, district and the city. On those larger scales, too, it is important that residents feel a sense of safety and comfort, aided by the experience of sound. According to the municipality of Amsterdam, Centrum district rates an 8.1 (on a score from 1 to 10) in terms of
‘feeling at home’ by its residents, versus a 7 in Nieuw West (Gebied in Beeld, 2020).
In this study, it is explored how residents of Amsterdam relate the experience of sound and quietness to the context of the home, neighbourhood and the city. Furthermore, in relation to the aforementioned appropriateness of sound in relation to the character of the area, it is investigated what sounds are deemed typical for that environment, giving insight into what is pleasant, unpleasant, comfortable or safe about urban sound. Sounds that are linked to the
identity of specific places and might relate to that sense of place or feeling at home, are called soundmarks1 (Adams et al., 2006, p. 2392; Kang, et al., 2016, p. 286).
4.3.2 The Social Context: Sound and the Social
Another aspect of the situational experience of sound is the social context in which it is perceived. Especially in cities, with their large volumes of people and high population density, hearing other people is almost inevitable. But interestingly, hardly any literature exists on the relation between the social and the evaluation of urban sound. Therefore, to learn more about the connection between the social and sound, looking into the literature on appropriateness of sound might be helpful, along with the knowledge that sound is often perceived as pleasant if it fits character of the environment and activities undertaken in them (Jo & Jeon, 2020, p.
106975; Aletta, Kan & Axelsson, 2016, p. 68; Bild, 2019; Booi & van den Berg, 2012, p. 1032).
In practice, this would mean that if any situation is clearly or expectedly a social one, social sounds such chatter, laughter of playing children, would be deemed appropriate and thus pleasant, or less disturbing. Conversely, any social sounds that do not fit the character of the area, such as a library or one’s bedroom, might be experienced more negatively.
As shown in a study by Guastavino (2006), the sound of ‘other people’ in a city is often evaluated as pleasant. However, who those ‘other people’ are in relation to the perceiver, and in what context their sounds are experienced are left rather unclear.
In this study, it is explored how residents of Amsterdam relate their experience urban sound and quietness to the social context of the city, thus investigating how they talk about sounds coming from other people and when or where this is experienced as pleasant or unpleasant.
4.3.3 The Temporal context: Sound and Time
Sound in- and over time
Like place or social context, the time in which sound is experienced matters for the way we evaluate it. Firstly, what is experienced as pleasant or unpleasant can shift depending on the time of day. For example, hearing traffic noise during the day is often not as disturbing as it is during the night. As expected, this has to do with our biological clocks and sleeping patterns, needing more quietness to be able to rest (Babish, 2002, p. 4). For example, Öhrstrom et al.
1 Soundmarks are the sonic equivalent of landmarks (Adams, et al., 2006, p. 2390).
showed that people are much more likely to sleep with their windows closed in the case of high sound levels outside their bedroom windows (2006, p. 52). This difference between day and night time is reflected in almost all guidelines on noise abatement, which recommend stricter sound norms for the evenings and night (WHO, 2018; Berglund, Lindvall, Schwela, 2000; Booi
& Van den Berg, 2012, p. 1032; EEA, 2019).
Also informing our experience of sound is the change in sound levels over time.
According to the European Environmental Agency (EEA, 2019), there is growing number of people that are exposed to high noise levels, partly due to growing urbanisation, but mainly due to increasing road and air traffic.
In this study, it is explored how residents of Amsterdam experience urban sound in relation to time, whether it be the time of day, or in relation to a historical perspective on sound in the city.
In times of crisis: the Covid-19 pandemic
Lastly, the experience of urban sound and quietness cannot be separated from the moment in time in which this research was conducted, that is the Covid-19 pandemic. In December 2019, the Covid-19 virus started spreading in Wuhan, China. Since then, the virus spread across countries and continents, becoming a world-wide pandemic. As the virus kept spreading across the globe, governments took a wide array of actions to limit the spread of the virus as much as possible, to protect the most vulnerable people and the health care systems. As some countries went into complete ‘lockdowns’, the Dutch government implemented an ‘intelligent lockdown’
in March 2020, asking its citizens to practice ‘social distancing’ and work from home as much as possible, minimising their social contacts in day to day life, only travelling to work if absolutely necessary but at the same time trying to limit the negative impacts on the economy.
Meanwhile, urban life as we knew it completely changed. The temporary closure of museums, shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, libraries, schools, universities, gyms, and many other indoor private and public places had left the city almost unrecognisably quiet. On top of all these safety measures, a night curfew was installed by the Dutch government on January 23th 2021, forcing people to stay inside between 9 pm and 4:30 am. And now, more than a year after the virus’ entrance to our lives, The Netherlands and many other places in the world are still struggling to combat the virus.
It is an understatement to say that the Covid-19 pandemic has had profound negative effects on people’s personal, social and work lives, the economy, education, health, wellbeing, and much more. However, it has also opened up windows of opportunity for change, and studies
show that an unintended positive effect of the lockdown measures is the improvement on environmental noise pollution and especially on urban noise levels (Aletta, Oberman, Mitchell, Tong & Kang, 2020, p. 123). So although the past year has been full of restrictions, it has provided opportunities too. Especially as an interesting time to explore the experience of urban sound, and quietness in the city.
In this study it is explored how residents of Amsterdam have experienced sound in times of the Covid-19 crisis, what changes they perceived (if any at all) and what that means for the overall evaluation of urban sound and quietness, and its implications for the future.
5.1 Qualitative Understanding and the Soundscape Approach
Unlike mainstream research on urban sound, no quantitative measurements of sound are used in this study but rather subjective experiences of urban sound an quietness are taken as a way to understand what and why sonic environments are deemed unpleasant or pleasant, noisy or quiet. Therefore, to answer the research question ‘how are urban sound and quietness defined, experienced and valuated by urban residents and how are those experiences linked to the context of perception?’, semi-structured interviews with 32 Amsterdam residents were conducted. This qualitative method was inspired by the soundscape approach, which focusses on “the acoustic environment as perceived and/or experienced and/or understood by a person or people, in context” (ISO, 2020). Andringa & Roelofsen mention one of the main benefits of the soundscape approach to be the ‘focus on the entire acoustic environment, just as much on pleasant as unpleasant sounds and the whole of the acoustic experience’ [translation my own]
(2020, p. 45).
Since the aim of this research, and that of the soundscape approach, is to understand acoustic environments from the perspective of the perceiver, this study situates itself within the interpretivist epistemology of phenomenology and constructivist ontology (Bryman, 2012, pp.
28-33; Kang, et al., 2016, p. 287). This means that, similar to Weber’s Verstehen, this study stresses the “diverse meanings social actors confer upon their experiences” (Weinberg, 2009, p. 283). The flexible nature of semi-structured interviews match well with the aim to understand people’s meaning-making behind the experience of sound.
But it is not only aimed to understand urban sound and quietness from the perceiver’s point of view, the role of context is also under investigation in this study. One of the main premises in this study is that sound is not experienced in a vacuum, but in relation to time and space. Contrary to some studies in which context refers solely to the physical environment in which sound is experienced (Kang, et al., 2016, p. 285), here, ‘context’ is dealt up in three broad themes, namely: space, time and social environment. It is one of the priorities of this research to explore how the experience of urban sound and quietness are related to these contexts.
5.1 Two Case Studies: Amsterdam Centrum and Nieuw-West
As previously mentioned, the way urban sound is perceived and evaluated is inseparable from the context in which it is experienced. In this study, two different city districts will serve as case
studies to explore the way participants experience sound and the importance of quietness in relation to their direct living environments.
The Centrum district (figure 2) and Nieuw West district (figure 3) represent two very different urban contexts and make for an interesting comparison because of their stark and plentiful contrasts. For example, whereas the former consists of the historic inner city of Amsterdam, the latter is from the early post Second World War era and was mainly built up from the 1950’s onward. The two city districts also differ in terms of socio-economic class (average income, unemployment, education levels), housing type, liveability ratings, spatial functions, infrastructure, and access to green spaces, to name a few factors. Some general information on the city districts that is most relevant to this study, are presented below (see figure 4) and additional themed maps are included in the Appendix (A).
Figure 1. Amsterdam – city districts. via: https://maps.amsterdam.nl/gebiedsindeling/?LANG=nl
Figure 2. Amsterdam Centrum district, via: https://maps.amsterdam.nl/gebiedsindeling/?LANG=nl
Figure 3. Amsterdam Nieuw West district, via: https://maps.amsterdam.nl/gebiedsindeling/?LANG=nl
Figure 4: Amsterdam Centrum and Nieuw West – city district comparative information. Source:
Looking at the two case studies of this research, Amsterdam Centrum and Amsterdam Nieuw West districts, a few observations can already be made in relation to current literature and municipal data reports.
Firstly, one would expect that the need for quietness might be higher amongst dwellers of the Centrum district, since nuisance levels caused by individual persons, neighbours, hospitality and youths are twice as high as in Amsterdam Nieuw-West. And although the neighbourhood satisfaction is higher in Centrum than Nieuw-West (see figure 4), these liveability rates are in decline in Centrum district (Gemeente Amsterdam, 2019, p. 12). This is mainly related to increased nuisance surrounding crowdedness, tourism, and noise from traffic and hospitality establishments (ibid., pp. 3,9). Furthermore, much less urban greenery is available there (see figure 6 in Appendix A). Although some parks, such as Vondelpark, Sarphatipark, Oosterpark, can be found in and near the Centrum district, their restorative values might be questionable, since there are often still exposed to sound from traffic and high levels of human activity (Kaplan, 1995, p. 173).
Amsterdam Centrum Nieuw West
Population size/density (p/km2) 87.083/ 13.948 159.5212/ 4.784
Average spendable income per house hold per year
Unemployment rates 7,1 % 10,4 %
Educational level: % practical education (mbo levels)
12 % 32 %
Neighbourhood satisfaction (1-10) 7,8 6,7
Houses with double glazing (%) 59% 83%
Feeling at home in the neighbourhood (1-10)
Nuisance (people, neighbours, hospitality, youths)
200: Double of average amount of reports for region
100: Average reports for region Amsterdam-
Amstelland Hospitality establishments (bars,
restaurants, hotels, clubs, etc.)
On the other hand, despite its relative large amount of spacious green areas, including Rembrandtpark and Sloterplas, the Nieuw West district is located closer to Schiphol Airport and is more car dominated than Centrum district, which might make mechanical sounds more dominant in that area (see figure 7 & 8 in Appendix A), and might heighten the need for quietness. Overall, it is expected that these factors in both city districts are related the experience of urban sound and expressed need for quietness during the interviews.
5.2 Data Collection: Participants and Interviews
In November 2020 and March 2021, 32 semi-structured interviews were conducted with Amsterdam residents; 16 in the Centrum district, followed by 16 in Amsterdam Nieuw-West.
The same amount of participants were aimed for in both cases to get an even representation of voices from both city districts.
In both cases, the recruitment of participants started with distributing flyers (see figure 9, in Appendix B) in different neighbourhoods of the districts. This approach was aimed to produce a heterogeneous sample of people with a wide geographical spread (see figure 10 & 11 in Appendix B). However, due to low response rates (especially in the Nieuw-West district) and the time-consuming nature of this recruitment approach, 15 out of 32 participants were additionally contacted through student WhatsApp groups, Instagram, with help of colleagues, family and classmates.
These recruiting methods undoubtedly influenced the sample: almost all participants were theoretically educated (wo) or enjoyed a higher professional education (hbo), predominantly Dutch native speakers (only one interview was conducted in English), and white.
Nevertheless, participants’ ages range from 20 to 77 years old, with a relatively even spread across ages resulting in an average age of 42 years. Overall, there is a slight overrepresentation of men in this study; 17 out of 32 participants are of the male gender. However, women were overrepresented in the Centrum case (10 out of 16) and men were overrepresented in the Nieuw- West case (11 out of 16).
The interviews were semi-structured and conversation-like, prepared for with a topic list based on academic literature on sound and quietness, but without any set questions to safeguard flexibility in the conversation (see Appendix C). Among these topics were the type of sounds participants heard in and around their homes, what sounds are typical for their neighbourhood and the city, if and how urban sound has changed over time and why they experienced certain sounds as either pleasant or unpleasant. This semi-structured way of
interviewing gave participants room to elaborate on personal experience and provided opportunity to explore these in-depth. During the first round of data collection in Amsterdam Centrum, the topic list and questions of the interviews were heuristic in nature, intended to get a feel for different responses and for important themes to emerge from the data. These findings shaped a more focused topic list for the second round of data collection in Amsterdam Nieuw- West.
Given the Covid-19 pandemic and risks involved in physical vicinity, participants were provided the options to do the interviews face to face, via telephone, or Zoom. In the end, 18 out of 32 interviews were conducted in person at the participants’ home, and 14 were conducted via telephone or digitally. All interviews lasted between 25 and 55 minutes, and for privacy reasons, all participants have been assigned pseudonyms. A copy of this study was sent to them.
5.3 Qualitative Data Analysis
For the analysis, computer assisted qualitative data analysis (CAQDAS) was used. All face-to- face interviews were voice recorded with an iPhone application, telephone interviews with TapeACall and digital interviews with a Zoom recording function. Afterwards, notes were written up and interviews were transcribed as soon as possible. After the process of interviewing and transcribing, the text documents were uploaded into the qualitative analysis software Atlas.ti. In this software program, the transcripts were coded based on the different themes and topics in the questions and answers. Because all but one interviews were in Dutch, the assigned codes were in Dutch to ensure and maintain a certain level of closeness to the data. In vivo codes and open codes were used, which emerged out of the data and were not drafted beforehand. However, some of these codes lined up with the topic list, but most of the codes are a representation of what participants brought up in conversation. These codes presented the emergent patterns on which the structure of this study is built, and similarities and differences between the participants’ statements.
Although the process of interviewing, transcribing and coding might seem straightforward, some problems did arise along the way. Especially pertaining the translation of key concepts, such as ‘quietness’ and ‘silence’ between Dutch and English. As it turns out, it is not easy to directly translate the term ‘quietness’ to Dutch and back to English, and keep intact its core definition as provided in the literature, which is the absence of noise. In theory,
‘quietness’ translates to ‘rust’, but in practice ‘quietness’ is closer related to the Dutch word for silence, namely ‘stilte’. Many participants in this study do not use the word ‘stilte’ (silence) to
mean the absence of all sound, but rather refer to the absence of noise, or the presence of subtle background sounds, all of which closely relate to the English definition of quietness. In Dutch, the literal translation for quietness, ‘rust’, is often used as another term for calmness, tranquillity, peacefulness or rest and has less to do with sounds or the absence of noise than its English counterpart.
These definitional obstacles call for a clearer definition of what is meant by quietness and silence, and how they are used in practice. In the next chapter, therefore, attention is paid to the different understandings and definitions of these concepts, showing their different interpretations and nuanced lived experience.
5.4 Reflections on the Research Process: Validity & Dependability
First of all, given the sample size and limited diversity in the sample in terms of education and ethnicity, for example, the participants are together not representative for the Amsterdam population and the research has thus limited external validity (Bryman, 2012, p. 390). However, it was never intended to generalise the findings beyond the context of this study, due to the reliance on the specific contexts of Amsterdam and the unique and volatile period of research, namely during the Covid-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, the results are still valuable as a heuristic model and useful for the further exploration of the subject of urban sound and quietness, or other studies on the sensorial experience of the city.
The internal validity in contrast, is stronger. Firstly, the method of semi-structured interviews are suitable for the research questions, because the subjective experience of the participant is the central focus of this study. The heuristic approach in the first round of data collection led to newly phrased research and interview questions that reflected the emergent themes more clearly for the second case study. This resulted in more concrete research questions about the role of spatial, social and temporal context and the importance of control in the experience of our sonic environment. This in turn strengthens the validity of the interview questions, aligning the interview topics more clearly with the research questions and overall aim of the research.
Furthermore, during the interviews the participants were regularly asked for clarification pertaining certain answers, to ensure they were properly understood, strengthening the validity and credibility of this study. They were asked to rephrase certain words or elaborate on their opinions, minimising the reliance on shared ‘common sense’.
The reliability of this study is determined in terms of dependability (Bryman, 2012, p. 392), which refers to the transparency of the research process. Similar to the core principles of Grounded Theory, this research leaves a ‘chain of evidence’ (Beuving & De Vries, 2015, p. 43) in Atlas.ti, using open coding that reflect the emergent categories (themes) from the interviews.
The theoretical statements can thus be directly traced back to the original data it is based on.
Last but not least, it should also be noted that the outcomes of the interviews are co- constructed by the participant and myself, the researcher. The outcomes and answers are shaped in part by the questions I chose to ask and my rapport with the participant. This in turn will undoubtedly be influenced by my own positionality as a white woman in her mid-twenties, living in Amsterdam as a Research Master student of the University of Amsterdam.
6.1 The Meaning of Urban Sound: Quietness and Noise
Theoretical concepts such as quietness, silence and noise are all clearly demarcated and standardised in the literature. But in the lived, practical meaning of their everyday use, these terms are often much more nuanced and rich in meaning. In this chapter I will present the way the urban sound concepts of quietness, silence and noise are used, understood, defined, and explained by the participants in this study to examine what is actually meant when they talk about the sounds of the city.
Sub question 1:
How are urban sound, quietness, and noise defined, understood and experienced by Amsterdam residents?
6.1.1 What is Quietness?
In this section, quietness is discussed alongside other terms such as silence, soundlessness, calmness and tranquillity which are related to, intersecting with and separated from this central concept. The three main ways in which quietness is understood are a) in relation to silence, b) as an acoustic environment, or a more holistic sensorial experience and c) as a setting, state of mind or atmosphere that relates to a sense of calmness and tranquillity.
Quietness and silence: between ‘rust’ and ‘stilte’
The relationship between the terms quietness and silence is an interesting one. First of all, although these concepts are clearly separated in academic literature, they are not as clearly distinguished from one another in their everyday use in the Dutch context. The theoretical, technical meaning of quietness is the ‘absence of noise and unpleasant sounds’ and silence is the ‘absolute absence of sound’. In Dutch, quietness translates to ‘rust’, and silence translates to ‘stilte’. But during the interviews with Amsterdam residents it became clear that the translation of these concepts (‘rust’ and ‘stilte’) are often used interchangeably, or separated at one point in conversation, and used as synonyms at another (see chapter 5.4 for an elaboration on this issue). Interestingly, the Dutch translation for quietness can be interpreted as both a sonic description and an overall evaluation of an atmosphere or feeling. In most cases, when