The square of La Defense during the weekend

Rapid urbanization, modernization, and globalization have allowed an urban culture to shape today's cities. Placed as a priority and at the heart of urban design, road infrastructures conduct the city's orchestra. Noise pollution has often eluded meaningful quantification or qualification, even as it impacted urban dweller’s quality of life in a major way.  Anthropophony is dominant, and "silence" is saturated with ambient mechanical noise: today’s urban soundscapes face an imbalance of voices. R. Murray Schafer, the father of acoustic ecology, describes this evolution of the soundscape as a shift from hi-fi to lo-fi (1993). Barry Truax, a Canadian musicologist, elaborated further on this notion in his book Acoustic Communication (2000b) when he explained that "the soundscapes of contemporary cities around the world present the same principal sound: traffic." Noise pollution is then presented as a symptom of modern life, a symptom that has been ignored for a long time despite its harmful effects on the well-being of all city inhabitants.


Bruitparif's studies on noise pollution in the Parisian agglomeration expose the harmful impact of noise on the health of the inhabitants of the Ile-de-France region. The study underlines that noise constitutes a serious problem to public health, both physical and psychological (Bruitparif, 2020).


This acoustic imbalance reflects on the prosperity of nature as well. Modulation of bird song, increased stress, and disruption of genetic selection are all examples that show the need for solutions that take into account the effects of human noise on the flourishing of nature in urban ecosystems. According to Bernie Krause, an American bioacoustician, 50% of nature's sounds have disappeared. We speak of the silence of nature (Vidal, 2021).


Furthermore,  the notion of atmosphere and quality of life to study the sensitive and multisensory aspect of an ecosystem is brought to the fore. In 1980, the term “ambiance'' entered the scientific vocabulary as a central reference to qualify the feelings experienced by the occupants of architectural and urban spaces. Jean Paul Thibaud, director of research at the Centre National de Recherches Scientifiques (CNRS) and researcher at CRESSON, defines atmosphere as: "a space-time experienced in sensitive terms"(2020). Henry Torgue, a researcher at AAU (Ambiances, Architectures, Urbanités)  adds that the ambiance is defined at the same time as materiality (spatial configuration, various sensory proposals, etc.) and as interiority (personal feeling, collective feeling, etc.) (2012).


The perception of an environment is defined by the morphology of a landscape, by its users and by the activities they integrate, where sound is a signature of the qualities of the environmental space. Sound ambiances are the manifestations of the interactions that inhabit a landscape. The city is an intermediary of acoustic communication. It witnesses the orchestral act of combined playing that animates urban life. 

This field of acoustic ecology is intertwined with the understanding of landscape . The soundscape, other than its role of soothing and creating musicality, must be recognized for its societal and anthropological dimensions. Analyzing the sound ambiences that shape the city therefore allows a visualization of the interactions and movements of the urban ecosystem. Instead of hiding behind walls and protecting our ears from the outside world, which is hostile to all living beings, new issues of sensitive urbanity must be raised. A rethinking of today’s urbanization methods is then necessary.  Consequently, It is crucial to accompany the ecological transition of cities by a transition to the sensitive, by a transition from noise to sound.


To better understand the impact of noise pollution on non-human life, I established a sound inventory on different open spaces at La Defense, in areas where some green cover is evident. I did many recordings on different days of the week and times of the day, in order to analyze the relationship between the physical space and its soundscape. 

The following is one example of sounds recorded at the square of La Defense, one of the rare spaces where tree cover exists in the large open public space of La Defense.


The latter highlights how human-sourced sounds occupy a high range of frequencies, which makes communication more difficult for birds with a similar high frequency range. Sounds generated by strong human activity therefore contribute to noise pollution and disturbs the presence of nature. Hence, the definition of noise pollution is varying depending on the context. It is not just mechanical sound that generates acoustic discomfort. This implies the need to create a balance between the human and the non-human presence within the urban ecosystem. This also informs that a dense vegetated area is not necessarily a sign of a rich ecosystem. It is by listening to the soundscape that an extra layer of understanding of the vitality of urban environments can be perceived. An acoustic approach to landscape architecture can therefore contribute to the designing of non-anthropocentric future cities.

The square of La Defense on a monday noon - at rush hour