“You can hear them before you see them”

Listening through Belfast segregated neighborhoods


Nicola Di Croce

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Observing marginality through listening 

2. Sonic consequences: Causes of segregation and effects on the sonic environment

3. Sonic boundaries: Mapping segregation through ice cream van melodies

4. Sonic propositions: Acoustic identity and policy design

5. Conclusion

6. References

Methodology note


The research was conducted in March 2015 as part of a PhD visiting program at the Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC), Queen’s University Belfast. I was hosted by “Recomposing the City,” a multidisciplinary research platform co-directed by Gascia Ouzounian and Sarah Lappin.

The fieldwork was based on a careful sonic exploration of different neighborhoods in Belfast; the analysis, the outcomes and the diagrams derive from this fieldwork and are informed by many (informal) interviews with inhabitants. All the field recordings were recorded as simple field notes for the inquiry. The analysis was further enriched by an interview with the Belfast City Council’s license and permits department, which contributed important institutional information and data. Maps were realized to better describe the outcomes of the research, which was difficult to present through a combination of words, photos, and field recordings.

1. Introduction: Observing marginality through listening


The paper aims to reveal the relationship between marginality and the diffusion of specific urban sonic cues. In order to begin on solid theoretical footing, it is necessary to clarify our understanding of “marginality”, where I propose it is possible to listen to marginality, and how sonic awareness of marginality could help to further an understanding of social and spatial segregation.


I define marginal urban areas as low on the list of government priorities due to 1) significant “distance” from big centers, 2) lack of infrastructures or 3) anthropic or natural barriers. Social segregation is one the first outcomes that can arise from such marginalization.

The notion of marginality often corresponds to a socio-cultural situation where dwellers are unable to self-represent and self-govern (Lindblom 1965). From this perspective, a marginal area inhabitant – normally living in lower-income neighborhoods - is the protagonist of an abandoned environment; its “language” is not the institutional one, and its self-activation tools are insufficient to stimulate any relevant change within its social and physical surroundings.

Therefore, listening to lower-income neighborhoods and marginality represents a challenge that connects sonic studies with urban planning and public policy design: What does urban segregation sound like? How can a sonic understanding of this issue stimulate a reframing of policy? These are the central questions this paper approaches through a case study of Belfast urban environent.

Peace wall in West Belfast, 2015 – Photo: Nicola Di Croce.


I decided to listen carefully to Belfast’s lower-income neighborhoods, to observe inhabitants’ aptitudes, and to define their audible everyday practices. The primary places to experience a real sense of segregation were the areas close to the so-called “peace walls” – physical borders built between different religious communities.


In my first explorations, some of the few sonic signals I heard in a rather silent sonic environment were distant melodies; I later understood they were coming from ice cream vans. Soon I realized that whether the trucks were moving within the same neighborhood or operating on the other side of the wall, the sound they produced was so strange, powerful, and apparently “inappropriate,” that it substantially impacted the rest of my research.

Soundfile 1: The Belfast peace wall.

I noticed that as I moved away from the peace walls, reaching middle- or upper-class neighborhoods, the ice cream vans would gradually disappear. From these first observations, I started to wonder why ice cream street vendors were covering only certain parts of the city and how the diffusion of the ice cream van melodies could be perceived and characterize the most segregated areas of the city. Marginal area inhabitants who share a passion for ice cream participate here in a collective “ceremony,” which takes place in public space and includes both the young and the most vulnerable generations. The present research claims that a sonic inquiry into ice cream vans’ trade could contribute to the understanding of Belfast's segregation logic and offer constructive critique to the public policies addressed to public space and social integration.


2. Sonic consequences: Causes of segregation and effects on the sonic environment