Words, Photography & Audio by Benjamin Languay

On a cold winter day, the corner of Parc Avenue and Pine Avenue is mundane. To the east is McGill’s Percival Molson Stadium, vacant in the cold. To the west are the nightclubs of St-Laurent Boulevard, the buildings quietly asleep during the day before the nighttime rush. McGill students shuffle to their classes towards the south, and Mount Royal’s hills cascade to the north.

On each of the four corners of this intersection lie four green spaces, covered in snow for the winter. To the average passerby, they are nothing more than a welcome respite from the endless concrete that defines much of urban life.

To Daniel Steele, the intersection is an acoustic calamity.

LISTEN: The corner of Parc Avenue and Pine Avenue is an example of Montreal’s unplanned soundscapes. Traffic noise from oncoming cars lead to a sound environment not associated with green spaces. This chart shows a spike in the noise levels each time a car passes the parks.

Steele is a researcher with Sounds in the City, a collaborative project between McGill University, the City of Montreal, and urban planners, which aims to improve the way the city sounds. Their research focuses on the psychological aspects of sound and how they can be applied in the city to make people happier.

Steele says that noise is perceived in relation to the activity being performed in that space. “When you’re home and trying to sleep in your bedroom, you have an expectation for a soundscape that is quiet and not full of disturbing sound,” he says. “When you are doing social activities or trying to have a conversation with someone, you actually want a higher background noise level, so you don’t have the idea of awkward silence. However, if the background noise is too high and you can’t hear me, then we have a problem of understanding. There is a sweet spot.”

This concept drives how Sounds in the City encourages city officials to take sound into account when making design decisions. The intersection of Parc Avenue and Pine Avenue is what Steele calls “wasted space”. Until 2004, the intersection was a highway interchange, but when it was eventually replaced for the current, more pedestrian-friendly arrangement, the four green spaces were created. Three of the four are small parks containing a few benches, which ignores a lot of factors that affect the sound of the space.

“Unfortunately, the people who made the spaces assumed that just because they coloured the spaces green, they would be parks,” Steele continues. “But Parc and Pine are still six lanes of traffic in each direction, still super noisy, it still doesn’t have the character that it’s a place to be. I have literally never, in ten years, seen a person using them.”

The final green space serves as a volleyball court in the summer, which Steele believes is a much better use of the space. “You change the activity a little bit, and suddenly that space is a one that people can use. Expecting someone to come with a lawn chair to read a book in that empty park is not going to happen because it doesn’t sound like a park. It looks like one, but it doesn’t sound like one. On the other side, you have volleyball, which is an activity that is tolerant of a little bit of background noise, and so suddenly that space works.”

LISTEN: Condo complexes on René-Lévesque Boulevard blur the line between residential and commercial zones in a city. This, in turn, could lead to increased noise complaints.

This intersection is a perfect example of the “accidental soundscapes” that comprise Montreal. Often, sound designers are excluded from the process of urban planning in the city. This creates sound environments that are unintentional; no one planned the way the city currently sounds. Apartment buildings with bedrooms facing the street, condo complexes on streets with non-stop traffic, and residences shooting up near Quartier des Spectacles are all potential trouble spots that could be easily remedied, Steele argues.

The way it is right now, it’s like a car with no speedometer.

“Architecture and urban planning are very visual cultures and they don’t always think about the sound dimension of the problem,” he says. “So that often tends to get left out.”

LISTEN: Quartier des Spectacles hosts outdoor shows year-round, putting the condo buildings seen in the background of this photo within earshot of many concerts. Montréal en Lumière, held from February 21st to March 3rd, included a zipline down Sainte-Catherine Street.

Romain Dumoulin, a former noise control officer for the city, and current researcher for Sounds in the City, believes the regulations for noise in Montreal could be improved.

“There are ongoing questions of whether our city is noisier or quieter than it was ten years ago,” he says. “We don’t know because the city doesn’t really care. The city should at least document and archive how the noise evolves and take some responsibility.”

Right now, the city only tracks noise complaints – not overall city decibels – despite numerous negative health impacts of noise pollution. Montreal employs two noise control officers, about ten per cent of the number employed in New York City. The Montreal officers, however, only handle small complaints: a noisy fan in a restaurant, for example. Complaints related to construction or traffic noise, the two largest contributors to urban noise, go unhandled in the current system.

Plateau-Mont-Royal is among the boroughs with the most noise complaints in the city, usually between 100 and 200 per year. The close proximity of businesses with homes causes issues.

The municipal government, in these situations, have their hands tied. Major roads in the city are owned by the provincial and federal governments, so implementing any measure to reduce traffic noise – lowering speed limits and improving the quality of the asphalt being the two most effective – is more complicated than it may seem.

On the other hand, the City has several examples of characteristic sounds and has proven itself to be capable of managing certain sounds well. In the Old Port, the sound of cobblestone under a calèche is a typical Montreal sound. However, the best case can be found underground: the dou dou dou of the metro doors closing, a sound inspired by “Fanfare for the Common Man” by Aaron Copland. If you listen closely, the engine on the older metro trains makes the same dou dou dou noise and melody, as the train leaves the station.

“Sounds are a design opportunity and the metro did a really great job of being a characteristic Montreal sound,” Steele says. “I can’t take the metro and not sing the rest of that symphony in my head.”

LISTEN: Cobblestone roads in the Old Port of Montreal have become an iconic Montreal sound.

The researchers at Sounds in the City want to see more consistency in monitoring sound in the city, especially from those who make the most noise. Dumoulin has recently worked in collaboration with Quartier des Spectacles to install a continuous noise monitor for their outdoor venues which, he hopes, will be the norm for smaller concert venues across Montreal.

“The way it is right now, it’s like a car with no speedometer,” Dumoulin says. “They say ‘Okay, we can go really fast, because no one’s watching me’. Systems like this make noise management more transparent. If people know that the process is being well-monitored and well-documented, that’s helpful.”

Sounds in the City hopes that Montreal can shift its approach from accidental soundscapes, to more intelligently designed ones. For that to happen, academics with sound expertise need to be at the drawing board.

“Our city is made up of a lot of unintentional soundscapes,” Steele says. “It doesn’t mean that it’s bad, it doesn’t mean that it’s good. It just means that it wasn’t thought about. We have the power to decide our sound environments on purpose, but no one here is really exercising that power.”