Recording the Quiet of Cities During the Pandemic

The usual sounds of the city have subsided, replaced by birds and quiet that at times can be eery and unsettling.

2 minute read

May 25, 2020, 7:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

California Shelter-in-Place

Bjorn Bakstad / Shutterstock

Quoctrung Bui and Emily Badger share details of research that reveals the details of one of the most obvious and thorough changes in cities during the coronavirus pandemic: the eerie quiet of days and nights, punctured occasionally by sirens and birdsong.

"The city no longer sounds the same," according to the article, and researchers are documenting just how complete the change has been. The article focuses on recordings made by researchers at an N.Y.U. project called SONYC, who have recorded audio clips from 16 microphones monitoring patterns in noise pollution in the city for more than three years. 

"The microphones are mostly in Manhattan, with others in Downtown Brooklyn and Corona in Queens, but the yearslong audio archive gives a clear sense of a citywide rhythm over time — in normal times," according to the article.

A key finding of the recordings produced during the pandemic: "Twenty-nine of the city’s 30 quietest days during the last three years have been during the pandemic, the recordings suggest. The exception was Christmas Day in 2018."

Similar results have been found with experiments in other cities around the world. The Senseable City Lab at M.I.T., for example, has recorded walks through city parks in Singapore, New York and San Francisco. "In Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, they’ve found, the ambient noise of the city — cars driving by, construction work — has declined, replaced by birdsong," according to Bui and Badger.

Another key point made in the article is that not everyone likes a quieter city. Some are even nostalgic for sounds that used to be annoying.

Friday, May 22, 2020 in The New York Times

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