In search of a quiet ecology

I’m a socially anxious introvert, a softly spoken gay man, a shy retiring type and a highly sensitive person. I’m often prone to bouts of anxiety when surrounded by crowds, I get nervous at large gatherings which can result in public panic attacks. I could fall apart at any moment. The noise and rush of busy cities can wear me down until all I want to do is hide in a dark corner.

So you might be thinking: how does he cope with all this? Well don’t get me wrong. I love and adore city spaces, the adrenalin rush of traffic and movement. I like to disappear in a metropolis and walk and walk for hours. I’m obsessed with architecture, both old and new. You could say I’m a kind of urban environment conundrum.

When composing music I am always listening for the space between the notes. Quiet moments, a tiny pause, spaces to accentuate beauty and tenderness. And I believe cities can have these in-between spaces too. So the task of seeking out quiet spaces in cities is a bit like making a musical score of ‘dots’ which represent where those pauses in the city are and how to find them.

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When I’m in a city I will head down laneways or between buildings just to find out what that space feels like, to pause, to breathe. I am listening out for that quiet corner in a busy mall or a shopping strip, a place to sit and just observe and be alone, but not lonely. I’ll go sit near a fountain where the rushing water shuts out the sound of the crowd.

Finding quiet is the reward for me, to know that city planners and councils had taken this into account long before I knew about my own creative and personal desires to seek it out.

A green space with trees or a micro-garden are ideal quiet spaces because they become tiny sanctuaries hidden amongst the concrete slabs, a place to regenerate oxygen, to hear birds, the rustle of leaves in trees.

Strange places like underground carparks too. There is something quite alluring and warm about some underground carparks, this sense of protection from the city sounds above. It’s like an eternal nighttime down there, no daylight gets in. A perfect place to retreat if only temporarily.

I also like a certain hum of machines. There is an elevator in my home-town city of Adelaide that travels on the outside of an eight storey building off the main mall. Once inside it’s an acoustic shell that allows you this 180 degree view of the city on a slow quiet electronic journey. I’ll often go in there just for the ride and the sense of temporary seclusion.

A traffic island surrounded by the noise of peak hour cars can also provide a sense of ‘quiet’ if you let it … A feeling of quiet in the brain, hushing the voices in your head. Lowering the volume, keeping it down.

So what does quiet sound like?

Can you identify quiet places in your city?

Can you describe the sound of your city?

Does it sound healthy, dangerous, too loud, too soft?

Does quiet have a vibrancy of all its own?

If I was to ask you to just listen to the sounds of the space you are reading this in for 30 seconds, what would you hear?

Is this a quiet space? What machines hummed in the background? Could you hear the sound of your breath? Did your thoughts drift?

My quest for quiet is based upon this principle: how do we control the balance of active and noisy, peace and quiet?

What do our future cities sound like? The answer it seemed was:  noisy, chaotic, hyper-social, full of sound and fury. So then how do we preserve quiet, how do we find spaces in our cities that maintain a sense of balance, places of retreat and solace.

Sometimes just knowing that these kinds of quiet spaces exist in your city can help relieve any anxiety you might feel as you move through it. I’m interested in making ‘sonic health services’ for built environments as a potential way of a re-hearing of our future city spaces. Finding balance for the ears, hearts and minds of those living in them.

I think of a city as a living, breathing organism. Imagine how anxious a city must be if it is always having to be ‘on’, never able to just take a deep breath for a moment, to stop the chatter, to find that brief pause. The idea of a city that never sleeps sounds too stressful to me! Surely if we encourage thinking around maintaining and protecting quiet spaces in cities, then surely levels of anxiety and stress will also reduce? Of course, every city is going to be vastly different depending on its character, history and context but by opening up the discussion, my hope is that the soft arguments and global conversations around quiet might take place.

But when all is said and done and the sounds of the city subside I ask only one thing of you: please be quiet.