— berlin sonic places

Interview with Prof B.Schulte-Fortkamp

Dr Brigitte Schulte-Fortkamp is professor of Technical Acoustics at the Technical University, Berlin and 2011-2012 vice president of the Acoustical Society of America. She has long been an advocate for the idea of ‘soundscape’ as a way to understand our sound environment in contrast to the, until recently, more commonly held view (in official circles) that regards ‘noise’ as the only issue.

The main focus of the interview is the Nauener Platz redevelopment in Wedding, Berlin, which Dr Schulte-Fortkamp headed in collaboration with the Regional Office Berlin-Mitte. Beyond it’s significance locally, it is one of the very few examples (worldwide) where soundscape ideas and attention to the acoustic environment have played a major role in planning and design. Rarer still it has actually been built and people can experience for themselves how the ideas work in practice.

One of the main sonic features at Nauener Platz are the ‘audio islands’. These are benches or other seating designs where loudspeakers quietly play sounds of a shingle beach, city and forest birds into the urban environment.


PC – What is your understanding of the term ‘Soundscape’?

BSF – My understanding is strictly with the definition as written in the Handbook of Acoustic Ecology (Barry Truax) in 1978. It’s that a soundscape is a sonic environment as perceived and understood by people, by society and by groups. This is my definition of soundscape and why for me soundscape is everything to do with perception and not with dB (A) measurement. It is my basic understanding and also the basis for identifying research procedures.

PC – What methodological consequences does this concept of soundscape have for studying and planning real spaces?

BSF – Following from this definition methodologies have to concern themselves with peoples’ minds. This means that what we need is information from people who are specifically concerned with the spaces/places in question. I usually call these people ‘the experts’ or the local experts’. Some years ago I called them the ‘new experts’. But the main thing is that we learn from people how they feel about and understand an area. And for planning we have to pick up their ideas and expertise in order to develop new spaces/places.

PC – How do you do that in practice?

BSF –Usually I have a very simple starting point. I meet with people and do soundwalks. In the soundwalk procedure I never propose where we should stop and listen. I only talk to people and say lets go though the area and stop where you think we should stand and listen to the sounds. I also make recordings and use a ranking scheme of pleasantness for the first impression.

I like to ask people what is going through their heads and what for them is meaning of this special place. After that, because I’m an acoustician, I go back to them and play the recordings to ask if they can go more deeply into what they have said. I also frequently use interviews and a questionnaire – not really a questionnaire, more a guideline – to talk to people in a narrative interview to learn about their experiences and their background in acoustics, a kind of acoustic biography.

PC – And this is with recognised experts or the local people who you call the ‘new experts’?

BSF – I call the local people experts. What I’m saying is that our expertise is to achieve the right communication level with local people because we have to know to understand them. They are to me the experts. It’s not the usual professional experts in community areas. They, of course, are experts in their own fields but they are never to me experts in respect of understanding local spaces and how they are used.

PC –Can you describe the main ideas behind the Nauener Platz design?

BSF – Yes, formerly Nauener Platz was a difficult area with high crime rates and drug use. It was a dangerous area concerning social issues. The aim was to rebuild the place, which is open and can be used by anyone from the area, so that people feel safe and at home. The idea was to use the soundscape approach to get information and to get in touch with people living there, to learn about their wishes and sorrows, and about their daily routines, especially those concerning Nauener Platz itself. People of all ages and genders told us that they did go there anymore because it was dangerous for themselves and children. So they needed to regain a trust in the place. That’s why we got people together, including those from Regional Office Berlin-Mitte.(who had asked us to become involved here).

So we organised meetings. At the start of the project a little festival was organized through the Regional Office Berlin-Mitte to gain access to people. Among other things sounds and sound measurements were demonstrated. Sound was brought to the public’s attention. Young and old and those of different ethnic backgrounds came. It was a step-by-step procedure for us to learn about their wishes. It is worth saying that it is not a rich area. Most people live in small apartments. Also these are not the best of buildings. The idea was to make Nauener Platz a kind of living room for them and that’s why you must have people involved.

Since the place opened things have gone very well (fingers crossed). Over the last two years nothing has been disturbed. Because the people were involved in the redevelopment they see it a little like their own living space so they take care of the area.

PC – Was it all built as planned or were some things left out because they were too expensive or for other reasons.

BSF – Yes some things could not be done. It’s all about participation and collaboration. The landscape architect had brilliant ideas for more audio islands and I wanted this too. We wanted to have some far away from the street and some close to the street. This has been done, but only a few – 3 close to Reinickendorfer Strasse and 2 near the rose garden. More were in mind but there wasn’t enough money. But this was not so bad because people also wanted to have a small fountain, which was much appreciated by the children. So we had to make a choice between that or more audio islands.

PC – What are your feelings about Nauener Platz now?

BSF – Up to now I’m quite happy. I’m thinking that it went very well for different reasons. My hope is that people continue to use it. However the people originally involved will not necessarily stay there and money is also needed for repairs and maintenance. We had a re-evaluation last year, which went very well. We were able to change some sounds in the benches. I hope it will continue as it is for a while now.

I also feel that many people – because we have presented the project widely – have taken this as a model. So I have a few places in Italy where the same concept is working well and if it is considered a success by Berlin city they might develop other places similarly.

PC – What would you change if you were doing it for a second time? What have you learnt from the experience?

BSF – I have learnt that I would like to provide more information. Not necessarily for those originally involved but for newcomers. We don’t have money for new panels where you let people know what it is. It would be nice to have some information on how to use the ‘audio islands’ for example. And I would also like to have other changes.

We also learnt that I would always use a similar procedure to involve people living there. I would not give up this up even though it is very time consuming. Secondly we learnt that you should have more arrangements to ensure things will continue over the following years. But for the moment it’s a kind of miracle. I’m happy that it’s still working. Maybe too I would like to have official institutions like the kindergarten more involved. Unfortunately this time they didn’t want to be.

PC – Did they say why?

BSF –I don’t know. The process had started half a year before we came in. And relations were not right. We tried to go and talk to the people but they were not interested. Probably you need a different procedure to get these kinds of institutions involved. We know from our evaluation that the kindergarten does take groups there. But they could have had more of what they needed. Maybe they also have some kind of learning to do in these processes.

PC – The evaluation – was that your responsibility or was that by the city or community groups?

BSF – The evaluation was done by us. It was also requested by the city but not contracted. But of course we wanted to see ourselves what the outcome was after one and a half years. It was done by two students as a masters thesis. For me it was important to learn whether the ideas worked or not.

PC – How successful do you think the audio islands are? Do you like the idea of the soundscape being created through loudspeakers?

BSF – Yes it would be interesting to discuss this with more people. This place is embedded between two very loud main streets. Typical measurements at the corner are 75dBAleq – very loud. It goes down to 50 or 40dBA further from the roads. But everywhere you hear traffic noise.

When we asked people they said that they would like to hear birds and water. So we created these sounds and carried out a test at Nauener Platz. People chose the city birds, forest birds and the shingle beach. It’s important because it is mental masking. Otherwise the soundscape would have stayed the same as it was.

There is some reduction behind the gabian wall (3dB). These walls were a good idea, but the height could not be greater than 1.35 meters because of safety issues. The whole place needed to be organised so that everyone can see what is going on; that was a major message. So I think the constructed soundscape is helpful because it is used. Originally we wanted three buttons, on, off and choice of sound. But in practice there is only one sound per bench, but it is something that people still like.

But the funny thing is (we haven’t done any research) that real birds seem to be coming back to this place because of the bird song. It’s not a typical animal communication but there appear to be more birds. So now nature is changing the soundscape there.

PC – And you think that is partly to do with the recorded birds sounding there.

BSF – Yes, I think so. There are no more trees than before and no obvious reasons for change otherwise. So this could be an outcome.

I also ask myself that if I was there often would I want to hear these same sounds every day. But on the other hand the acoustic islands close to the street, the benches, are also designed very nicely so you don’t hear the traffic so loudly.

PC – My impression with the recorded sounds is that you hear the loop.

BSF – Yes that’s a problem. It was also my proposal to change this loop. But this was not in our hands any more. We gave those sounds to those who had responsibility for the installation. Our responsibility was for the benches and their position, but we didn’t have responsibility for the installation or the cutting of the sound. One of my students (the same who did the evaluation) recorded the sounds, but the editing is such that they sound unnatural sometimes. But nevertheless it’s obviously nicer for some people to hear this compared with the traffic.

PC – I’ve been there twice.

BSF – So what was your impression?

PC – Well I thought the sea actually works better than the birds because it fits in with the sound that is there. Sea and traffic are quite similar. And the birds – one of them was just too loud. It can either be on off but there’s no control over the volume and so it did sound very unnatural. So I haven’t made up my mind. I can’t give you a straight answer.

BSF –At the time when we did the installation things were OK. But these are the problems that are coming up now. And I’m afraid that it’s true that over time it will have to be changed. We haven’t been asked to put in different sounds, but maybe next time we should have a different approach to deal with this kind of issue.

PC – OK thank you very much. What are you working on at the moment?

BSF – At the moment among other things I’m involved in a major project concerning safety in cities. For the first time we are using the soundscape approach as a methodology for researching safety in cities. The project involves several parties from the university and city management. We are doing soundwalks in all of the three cities, but this time also with official people such as regulatory authorities. It’s been going on for a year and half and we will finalise it next year.


The project discussed above is a module of the Project “Nauener Platz – Remodelling for Young and Old” in the framework of the research program “Experimental Housing and Urban Development (ExWoSt)” of the “Federal Ministry of Transport, Building, and Urban Affairs (BMVBS)” by the “Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning (BBR)”. The responsible organisation for the projectis the Regional Office Berlin-Mitte.

TU Berlin 29.5.12, Peter Cusack


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