more jane jacobs

October 14, 2010

I like Sophie Arkette’s arguments in “Sounds Like City” because she reminds me of my favorite urban theorist, the very badass Jane Jacobs, a New York City native whose influential book The Life and Death of American Cities defined the very idea of urban theory.

Just as Jones fought to preserve the acoustic chaos of urban areas, praising density and diversity of noise as marks of a true city–Arkette responds to Schafer’s views of “natural” sound harshly, saying that to assert that “urban supervenes upon the natural landscape and that the urban sounds can be cleaned up to resemble natural sounds is to misread the dynamics of city spaces.”

After living in Downtown Long Beach for the last four years, I, too, refuse to accept Schafer’s assertion that urban noise is a negative thing. “For all it’s compacted, low-frequency ambience,” she says, the city’s sonic environment “has not reached a saturation level whereby we become alienated from it.” In fact, I would say that the multitude of conflicting noises in my city forces me to listen more closely to each of them, embrace them, study them and wonder in what ways they “reinforce [Long Beach’s] own identity” by contributing to its sonic profile.

While Jacobs’ emphasis was never on sound in particular, her ideas were concerned with the postwar development movements that abolished citys’ complex infastructures in favor of pre-planned suburban space. These suburbs attempted to bridge the gap between rural and urban both visually and sonically. Jacobs’ problem with this method of urban planning lies in her idea that communities are living beings constantly being shaped by their inhabitants and environments. By planning the spaces and designating where sound is and is not allowed (at the mall, not in your neighbor’s space, not after 10 p.m., etc.), cities are stripped of their spontaneous-yet-complex acoustical order.

Basically, what Schafer calls schizophonic, Jones calls community. The most healthy and organic communities, in her eyes, are inherently noisy and the sounds that Schaefer calls “pollution” is actually representative of the very things that define urban space. Both Jones and Arkette would argue that rural spaces aren’t the only place to experience natural sound. These hi-fi soundscapes are their own form of natural sound–created (much like Schafer’s birdcalls) organically by those who live within its fluid boundaries and are seeking to define personal territory.

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