Recording the soundscape in an urban informal settlement in Suva, Fiji.
Photo by Mere-Jane Sawailau and Nirai Ravulo.

By Genie Fleming, Moataz ElQadi, Ruzka Taruc, Autiko Tela, Grant Duffy, Emma Ramsay, Peter Faber, and Steven Chown

Read the full paper here.

Sound is an underappreciated environmental factor with profound influence on our health and wellbeing. While frequent exposure to excessive noise (such as loud traffic) is associated with a range of poor health outcomes, hearing the sounds of nature during our everyday lives, even within highly urbanized areas, can have positive effects on our physical and mental health.

Most people live in cities where they are continually surrounded by complex mixtures of sound – or ‘soundscapes’ – that can include both natural and human-generated sounds. These soundscapes and the relative balance of natural to human-generated sounds within them change throughout the day and across seasons. As result, they are challenging to quantify for scientific study. In this paper, we develop a generalizable system for classifying soundscapes to enable quantitative comparisons within and among different settings (for example, different countries). Our classification system successfully discriminates seven soundscape classes differing in relative dominance of natural versus human-generated sounds that reflect differences in the physical and temporal environment.

Furthermore, our classification system was developed within an often-overlooked urban environment – urban informal settlements (sometimes called slums). Over one billion people live in informal settlements worldwide, but we know little of soundscapes in these settings or how they influence the health of residents. We begin to address this knowledge gap by using the output from our classification system to describe and compare the prevalence of different soundscape classes within informal settlements in Fiji and Indonesia. When used in combination with health and development data, our classification system will allow us to evaluate the role soundscapes play in efforts to improve the lives of people in these settlements through upgrades to the physical environment including increased greenspace and other natural elements.