For the last couple of years I have been tracking decision support tools that bring audio into the planning process. At our PLACEMATTERS06 conference, Harris Miller Miller & Hanson Inc. (HMMH) demonstrated their suite of acoustical environmental tools for planning, including a simple online soundbuilder enabling visitors to create different mixes with several sound overlays.
Last year I was also impressed with the sound functionality of some 3D visualization tools, including 3D Studio Max and Blitz 3D. One can add sound sources into their 3D landscape varying in intensity depending on how close they are to the sound source. Winston & Associates showed off a hybrid 3D visualization composition of a local high school renovation project comprised of SketchUp buildings, 3D Studio Max texturizing, and Blitz 3D real-time. The school garden included birdhouses and rustling trees that became louder and quieter as you walked by them.
Last night while I was catching up on my bills, I was listening to this week's edition of the NPR program Living on Earth as a podcast. A story about Dr. Bernie Krause of Wild Sanctuary took the prize with a way cool audio tool integrated with Google Earth. A self-proclaimed "Bio-acoustician," Dr. Krause has been collecting recordings of natural habitats and cities for over 40 years. He recently teamed up with Google to create Google Earth KML Layers of various habitats with associated audio files integrated into the landscape. According to the interview, once the KML is loaded, you go to the lower left hand part of the page and click a little box that will say soundscape. As you're zooming into a spot the sound will get louder and louder until you're a couple of thousand feet above that particular site and you'll hear the full range of sound. Personally, I could not find this check box, so I was only able to hear the audio files through the weblinks provided for each placemark.
Alarming was an example of Lincoln Meadow, which is about 40 miles north of Truckee in California, an area loggers claimed had been sustainably harvested. Pictures of the selective logging leave the impression that impacts have been minimal. But listen to the recordings before the harvesting in 1988 and then again exactly one year later after the harvesting and you get a totally different "picture." In the first example the audio landscape represents a chorus of birds, insects and wildlife. One year later, and it's the audio equivalent of a desert with only the sound of water in a nearby stream and a wood pecker remaining. 15 years later and the birds still have not come back, claims Dr. Krause.
The potential for tools like these to help people make more complete decisions around ecosystem based management and land use planning is encouraging. Dr. Krause also played examples of city sounds and how distinctive different cities are – a neat way to capture the "heart and soul" of different types of communities. Audio tools represent a new class of decision support tools, allowing for "sounder" planning.