Posted June 10th 2018 at 8:44 am by
in Sensemaking through Sound

Making sense of the city needs to come from our actual senses

Planning as a professional practice offers a vocabulary, a framework, a toolbox to formalize our understanding and experiences of place. Our Census data, statistics, maps, and models. help us make order out of the messiness of our places. And when tasked with making decisions in extraordinarily complex situations, order can be a helpful stabilizing force.

While it’s important to be skilled at these planning tools, sometimes I think that mastery of the technical can come at the expense of the visceral, and by extension our human senses. Contrary to the assumptions embedded within quantitative methods, the city is more than just a sum of its individual parts.

The coherence our senses create out of cacophony in our places creates meaning. And at the end of the day, as planners, we’re trying to create meaningful, joyous, inspiring places for actual humans, not just boxes, lines, and numbers.  

To complicate matters, as a tenure-track professor, I am challenged to figure out how to make the tools of my research craft, specifically qualitative methods, valuable to and for students (mostly) pursuing a terminal master in community planning degree. Most of my students will never be full time researchers. They will be practitioners working on the frontlines of community change. What skills and tools do they need for their jobs that could be gained from research methods?

Qualitative methods help us dive into the messiness of our places, and systematically sift through this complexity to make sense of the city. These methods help us hone and use our senses to listen and learn about our places, what they mean, and what more they need. Qualitative methods challenge us to be hyper aware of our surroundings and the people who inhabit it. They also require us to be hyper aware of ourselves because the researcher is the research instrument.

The intersection of my research craft and the needs of my soon-to-be practitioner students is awareness. In one of the courses I teach, Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods for Planning Practitioners, we practice awareness through active listening – with our ears and our eyes – through participant observation and interviews. And, of course, as planners we also use our eyes and hands to draw sections, site plans, and perspective views of different places of inquiry.

In 2017, I attended a panel discussion at the Society for American City and Regional Planning History annual meeting called “Sensing the City: Sight, Smell, and Sound in Planning History.” I heard a presentation by Naomi Waltham-Smith, faculty in the Department of Music at the University of Pennsylvania, and I was taken with how much she learned and theorized about the city simply from listening. I dug deeper and learned about  the richness of information soundscapes provide, and the practice of soundwalks as an accessible method to help us listen more deeply to the city itself.

Intro to Qualitative Research Methods for Planning Practitioners

Four students working in a group on environmental observations in my course, Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods for Planning Practitioners. 

This past semester, I have embarked on a multi-year experiment to embed soundwalks and deep listening into my qualitative methods course. The following posts in this series are the first in this experiment – a selection of soundscapes from my students in Spring 2018. They represent a diversity of spaces in the Washington D.C. and Baltimore metropolitan areas – from bustling commercial areas and transit hubs to meditative parks and trails.

Intro to Qualitative Research Methods for Planning Practitioners

Drawings pinned to a wall of environmental observations from students. 

Challenging students to think beyond statistical representations of places and helping them learn how to sink into places’ complexities through qualitative research methods is my ongoing work. But for now, I have found a new tool in my toolbox. Soundwalks are a bridge between the tools of planning research and those of planning practice. They have helped me and my students shine a light on the power of making sense of the city through our senses.

Photo credits: Ariel Bierbaum.

Note from the Editor: If you’re curious about other ways that sound – including the human voice – can enrich understanding of place, check out the Listening to the City handbook, recently released by CoLab, LA Listens, and the Design Studio for Social Intervention (ds4si).  The handbook is a collaborative effort of more than 30 practitioners, artists, and academics that shares methods and how-tos for community-based research and action through sound.

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