4. Sonic propositions: Acoustic identity and policy design


Urban planning, especially policy design, can consider the potentials of ice cream van melodies in breaking down Belfast’s segregation patterns. In order to do so, the public policies dedicated to street trade must be taken into account and implemented. At the same time, the psycho-acoustic involvement of marginal area inhabitants with ice cream melodies must be clarified.


For example, it is possible to claim that ice cream van melodies strongly contribute to producing a “safe” urban atmosphere. Notably, in 2010 a policeman used the ice cream van melody to calm a riot in West Belfast. The Police Service of Northern Ireland said, "An officer used the vehicle's tannoy system to play music to the youths in an effort to use humor to defuse the situation.” The youths stopped throwing the bottles. However, police admit that this was not an appropriate action (McDonald 2010). Even though the action was not considered appropriate, the fact that it happened demonstrates how powerful everyday sound messages are (Kelly 2011; Henry 2010). An “innocent” sound discloses, in effect, a multiplicity of meanings, as it is used to orient people’s actions and moods. The policeman used the ice cream van sounds because their intervention was specifically addressed to a group of segregated dwellers; their reaction confirms how strong their connection is with such a melody. Thus, it is possible to claim that sonic perception is related to social class origin, here the relationship that working classes have established with ice cream van melodies, when compared to less segregated, higher-income neighborhoods.


In addition, perhaps it is not a coincidence that police vans were redesigned to a particularly ice cream truck-like construction in 2001, right after the NI police force transitioned from the Royal Ulster Constabulary to the Police Service of Northern Ireland as a result of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Police van compared to ice cream van.


Ice cream vans have historically played an ambivalent role within lower-class residential areas, representing on one hand an innocent mobile trade, on the other an “ambiguous” activity. The Glasgow Ice Cream War illustrates the symbolic influence the vans held over people’s everyday affairs. In this “war” in Glasgow’s East End in the 1960s, the trucks were used as fronts to sell drugs and stolen goods; criminal organizations would intimidate the ice cream vendors and force them to execute their requests. In 1984 when a young driver refused to sell drugs, he was shot through the windscreen of his van. That event sparked a 20-year-long legal and street conflict (Johnston 2004).


In Belfast, as well, it is largely assumed (half-jokingly) that ice cream truck drivers do sell drugs, thus the perception of the vans’ activities as potentially drug-related exists, even though the situation cannot be compared with that of Glasgow.


Ice cream van melodies deeply affect the way marginal areas inhabitants make use of public space. Every truck resounds its own melody through its own trading area; thus, ice cream vans perpetuate a sonic demarcation that corresponds to a physical segregation. Hence, the sonic environment could inform an institutional level of understanding, using a sonic perspective and actual sonic material to highlight social exclusion.


By focusing on the links between sonic environment and public policy it is possible to encourage a reframing of urban-planning. To this end it is crucial to explore the policies that deal with mobile trades in order to better clarify the role played by ice cream vans within segregated areas. In particular, through the License Office, Belfast municipality orients mobile vendors’ actions across community borders. By doing so, the Office effectively “composes”, as a conductor, and could transform the sonic environment of the most segregated neighborhoods through a rewriting of the street trading policies (Competition Act 1998).However, the Belfast City Council’s License Office regulates licenses only according to the already-existing urban divisions (Street Trading Act 2001):


To enable the Council to regulate Licensed Mobile Street Traders, the traders apply for an area or areas of Belfast to trade in. Council officers have used Electoral Wards and/or commonly referred to areas, such as housing estates, to try and define the area the trader is permitted to trade in. On occasion, this has been problematic; a trader may trade in an area covering two or more Electoral Wards. While on paper this may look as if they have a large area, the trader will most likely only trade in a small area of those Wards.


Legal advice has been that the Council can apply criteria over and above what the Street Trading (NI) Act 2001 states, provided it is in keeping with the intention of the legislation. However, the Council cannot refuse an application on the basis that it would be detrimental to existing traders. Economic considerations of this type are not contained within the Street Trading (NI) Act 2001 and would undoubtedly be contrary to the European Services Directive and also to subsisting primary competition legislation, namely the Competition Act 1998.


In order to determine this application, the focus must be on whether the services already provided within the area are sufficient, not whether the granting of a further license or licenses would reduce the revenue stream of the existing license holders or businesses within the area.[1]


On the one hand, by following electoral wards and “commonly referred to” areas, the Council sticks to the existing cultural and religious borders. On the other hand, an economic parameter seems to override any further social consideration. The interview shows that a sonic acknowledgment of urban segregation is lacking within the different Council departments. In the present situation, the routes of the ice cream vans sonically reinforce socio-spatial borders; it is my opinion that street trade policies should instead be implemented in order to demonstrate how sound can traverse concrete boundaries.

The present research posits that the reconnection of Belfast's fragmented neighborhoods can be stimulated through a sonic approach. For this to happen, however, cooperation between Planning and License Offices is essential.


Areas with the highest concentration of street trade licenses (blue) and the border areas where new licenses could be activated (yellow). For this sonic proposition, I have indicated the most accessible borders with arrows.

As described, ice cream melodies easily enter lower-income neighborhoods and could therefore contribute to develop a different perspective on borders, challenging the segregated areas inhabitants’ sense of (sonic) belonging. Thus, street trade licenses can operate both as planning and sonic scores that encourage an understanding between communities. First of all, trade licenses can shape a “shared” sonic environment within different neighborhoods, a possible first step to promoting pacific dialogue between conflicting groups. If mobile trading was licensed in such a way that it connects typically segregated areas, young generations (who all love ice cream) might become involved in a common, regular, experience involving multiple levels of integration. Furthermore, the implementation of less divisive street trade licenses policy could stimulate the establishment of new trading points at accessible border spots, where the ice cream melody can symbolically unify conflicting communities. That is to say that it is possible – and expedient – to evoke a new permeable urban environment through sound, although a relevant reconfiguration of the urban arrangement is also needed.