We've been ignoring the power of sound for far too long

Graeme Harrison, Executive Vice President of Marketing for Biamp Systems, reports on the influence soundscapes can have on the health of individuals and the economy.

While reading the piece it may aid your concentration to listen to this sample from the Sound Agency...  

Since our earliest days, sound has helped us avoid predators and provided us with a depth of awareness about our surroundings that no other sense can match. However, it’s hard to argue that sound plays quite the same role in our lives that it once did – the buildings and structures that make up our cities and house us in our everyday lives are designed almost entirely using visual aesthetics, with sound coming in as an afterthought at best.

To some extent, this blindness (or deafness) to the impact that sound has on us has become even more serious in the modern day. As populations continue to expand we’re living in a world that is steadily becoming noisier. Research from the World Health Organisation has found that regular exposure to noise levels of just 50dB is enough to increase blood pressure, leading to a higher risk of heart attacks (as a point of reference average noise level in a busy office or classroom can exceed 65dB). Then, once you get to hospital, the battle continues as standard hospital wards are now being recorded with noise volumes as high as 92dB - nearly double the acceptable standard.

On the other hand, silence is not the solution. The complete absence of noise is just as unnatural. What you’re listening to now is a generative sound installation that Glasgow Airport trialled in its departures terminal – the scheme was put in place to try to sooth passengers in a potentially stressful environment. In this case researchers found that travellers admitted to feeling more relaxed, even in cases where they hadn’t realised the soundscape was playing. And perhaps more surprisingly, retailers noticed an uplift in sales during the trial, with some periods seeing an increase of nearly 10 per cent in passenger spending. 

The Glasgow case study is far from the only example of how sound can have a powerful effect on behaviour. Across the Atlantic, in the town of Lancaster, California, they experienced a 15 per cent drop in reported crime after the local mayor installed a birdsong-based soundscape in the downtown area. Organisations including the London Underground are following this lead expecting similar gains – when tube stations, including Brixton and Clapham North, noted decreased levels of violence following the introduction of classical music.

So what’s the secret to these experiences? And how far does the potential stretch? Sound may no longer as important for warning us of predators as in the past but, as the research suggests, risks still exist. It’s clear that taking control of local soundscapes can have a positive effect, avoiding the aggravation of uncontrolled noise and offering tangible benefits such as improved health and behaviour of those in the surrounding area. We need to begin constructing our sound environments as carefully as we would the façade and interiors of our buildings. Improving sound design isn’t about bringing home cinema to life, or turning amps up to 11, but is something that can be of real value to our society, health, and economy.

For more information, please see the whitepaper ‘Building in Sound’ which can be found here.

Glasgow Airport - where soundscapes led to an upturn in sales of 10 per cent. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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