The silence of the (pandemic) sidewalk
“A successful place is sensual. All our senses are awakened, invited to take the site in, to touch the space in many ways… Sights, sounds, and scents foster immediate and direct impressions and remind us of past experiences that have their own emotional content. Great places call us to alertness, aliveness, full use of all dimensions of our humanity.”
-Edward T. White
The urban realm is a stage, a blend of the aural, visual and tactile that create a multidimensional experience for each individual. Designing spaces to stimulate these senses humanizes urban spaces and gives them a story, a story that is collectively shared by the community. One of the most significant social impacts of COVID-19 has been the inability to share these stories.
During the pandemic only few mourned the loss of blaring car horns, while many rejoiced in the songs of winged creatures (the occasional airplane included), but there has been a discernible silence felt within public spaces, spaces now void of the sounds we usually take for granted. With this lack of sonic diversity, we are now more conscious of some sounds than others. The incessant noise of construction activity in my suburb now seems louder than ever!
The movement of people forms part of the soundscape of the everyday, a cumulation of sounds that help instil a sense of safety as we move around the urban environment. The soundscapes of social interactions are essential in creating successful ‘third places’, which are described by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg as places that ‘host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work’. With fewer people on the footpath and no chatter in urban centres, the sound of my city has changed, reflecting this decline in social energy.
Recent events also provide an opportunity to redefine the sounds that characterise our neighbourhoods. We can ask if we still want the most discernible sound in our neighbourhood to be that of a siren or a plane? In the wake of the pandemic we have been gifted a portal to the future, and provided an insight into a city not dominated by the sounds of cars, but a city where you can hear the distant sounds of the church bells or the Azaan from a mosque.
Our longing to hear the buzz of the city and life in the streets makes us realise the significance of social life and appropriate soundscapes in these ‘third spaces’. But the delight in the new sounds of our neighbourhood also highlights the potential of letting some of these previously drowned sounds become a permanent part of our future.
By Chinmayi Holla
Urbanist/ Urban Planner