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


Belfast's residential patterns and their sonic environments reveal what the quiet lower-income neighborhoods sound like, demonstrating how the impermeability of the actual spatial configuration contributes to delaying resolutions to civic controversies (Sennet 1970).

Belfast inner city (blue), surrounded by predominantly Protestant/Unionist neighborhoods (sand) and predominantly Catholic/Nationalist neighborhoods (green). Peace walls (dashed red) divide the conflicting neighborhoods.


Northern Ireland’s capital is a winding, sprawled city that experienced a huge growth in population around the first half of the twentieth century. This increase ended in the late sixties, when the “Troubles” started; since then, from the nearly 600,000 people living in the Belfast Urban Area, the number of inner-city inhabitants has dropped dramatically as people have moved out, expanding the Greater Belfast suburban population (Pointer 2007; Office for National Statistics 2009). The 2001 census showed that the population within the same area had fallen to 277,391 people, with 579,554 people living in the wider Belfast Metropolitan Area (Census data; Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency 2001; Stephen 2006). This loss of density corresponded to an increasing lack of physical connections between neighborhoods; this was caused not only by the introduction of “peace walls” but primarily by the new transport infrastructure configuration, which isolated areas previously accessible to each other.


The fragmentation of the urban form through highways and walls thus contributed to creating “culs de sac” that facilitated the establishment of “ghettos.” These “enclaves” now host still-conflicting lower-middle and working classes with strong religious affiliations (Gaffikin and Morrissey 2011). One result of government attempts to limit or suppress the riots was the creation of isolated neighborhoods, which prevent communities from experiencing a permeable urban environment (see Forum for Alternative Belfast).


As a matter of fact, from the 1960s to the end of the millennium, street connections reduced and mobility was limited through the formation of the culs de sac. Moving from a specific spot of the city to another became more and more difficult. Distances increased while neighborhoods gradually established their individualistic character, which followed an “appropriation,” thus a “semi-public” use of the residential courts. The inner city is currently the only permeable urban area, although it is also, paradoxically, the most depopulated one (Plöger 2007). 

Detail of a residential area in southeast Belfast. The dashed black line shows the invisible borders between residential blocks and frames the dead-end streets.


The sonic environment of Belfast residential areas reflects their urban contours: often calm, never disturbed by the traffic noise, sometimes enriched by the sound of children playing. This quiet environment reveals how little the public areas are used by the inhabitants and demonstrates at the same time a strong appropriation and control of the public space by its occupants. In fact, the calmness dissolves when a “stranger” comes into a cul de sac and breaks up the established order. The inhabitants control their environment through closed-circuit cameras as well as through their dogs, which bark as soon as a stranger oversteps the boundary between public and semi-public.

Soundfile 2: Inside a Loyalist courtyard.


This “out of place” feeling perceived by strangers is created in part by the suspicious gaze of neighbors as well as by visual identity symbols, such as religious flags, wall paintings, and flag-like printed urban fabrics. Moreover, peace walls resonate loudly when the wind blows over them. In fact, this is often the predominant sound that identifies border areas. In summary, even though the sonic environment is calm, it is always ready to react and continually reveals a tense ambience. City sounds are far away, rarely emerging throughout the buildings. Therefore, this quiet environment hides a full range of features that need to be further explored (Schön 1979).


The theoretical framework of the present research straddles sonic studies and urban planning. In order to orientate the inquiry toward Belfast’s sonic environment, the investigation into audible everyday practices (Di Croce 2016) is enriched by an acknowledgment of public-space dynamics (Augoyard 1979). Thus, the relationship between urban morphology and sonic perception is revealed through a distinctive and conflicting soundscape (LaBelle 2010). In fact, specific sonic cues could be attributed to specific stakeholders, that is, to specific users of the public space (Baläy 2004); the sonic environment is certainly a place where everyday practices are continually revealed.


Moreover, by listening to everyday sounds, it is possible to inquire into public space uses and abuses (de Certeau 1990), conflicts and resolutions, as well as acoustic characteristics, peculiar sonic identities, and cultural heritages. All these elements are crucial for the investigation of a specific context, especially with regards to understanding segregated areas. The sonic environment of Belfast’s most segregated areas is studied here as a “bridge” to investigating anthropic traces (Dewey 1938), symptoms suggesting urban issues to be further examined (Thibaud 2003). This is particularly interesting when the inaccessibility displayed by the urban form prevents an accurate investigation of the urban environment.