Urban Sound and Habitability

February 5, 2018
By Naomi Waltham-Smith

In December 2017,   I was honored to be invited to contribute to Perry World House’s workshop on Advancing the New Urban Agenda in a Shifting World. Alongside policy makers and practitioners, urban planners, lawyers, and political scientists, one wonders exactly what a musicologist might have to add to the conversation. What would I as a scholar who theorizes sound and listening have to say to those gathered around the table?  No doubt everyone else was wondering: What has sound got to do with UN Habitat? How could a theorist of listening intervene in debates about how to improve the habitability of cities?

The burgeoning transdisciplinary field of sound studies opens up new ways of thinking about the challenges of implementing the New Urban Agenda and of promoting participation so as to create more sustainable, which is to say, more equitable, cities. Urban aurality—that is the sphere of environmental sound, of urban soundscapes and the kinds of listening that takes place in our cities—enters into dialogue with questions of livability—of security, precarity, exclusion, etc.—in at least two dimensions.

First, the character of urban soundscapes is both a reflection of the habitability of neighborhoods and also a factor in the phenomenology of habitation. In other words, it is possible to find in urban soundscapes the conditions—economic, social, spatial, cultural—that determine the unequal distribution of livability within and between cities. At the same time, the quality of the soundscape is a contributing factor in making urban areas more or less livable. This means that sound is both a diagnostic tool (enabling us to grasp inequitable distributions of habitability in ways perhaps more immediate, intuitive, and multidimensional than more conventional indices may allow) and also a medium through which neighborhoods can be transformed so as to be experienced as more livable. In this piece, I explore a number of approaches and endeavors that point in these directions, including my own practice of field recording as part of my research.

Second, urban aurality includes the modalities of listening—the habits and strategies—that are produced not only by the particular character of the ambient sonic composition of cities but also by the material conditions—the effects of neoliberal governmentality, of neocolonial violence, of anthropocentric destruction and so forth—that compose urban spaces. This is to say that cities and the social relations that structure their conditions of habitability teach inhabitants how to listen. In turn, the ways in which inhabitants listen to one another and to their environment, together with the ways in which they are more or less audible to one another and to the institutions that govern their lives, affect the habitability of cities. Listening, in other words, can reinforce or challenge prevailing hierarchies and economies. It can affect the cohesion of communities, the conditions of political representations, the efficacy of local decision-making, the possibilities for coalition-building, etc.

To give an indication of what is at stake in urban sound, I’d like to ask you to listen to a set of audio clips. As you listen, what do you hear? 


To my ears—determined to no small degree by a specific set of material conditions—each of the recordings attests to unequal distributions of habitability and security. The four clips were:

(1)   inside the “Ghost Ship” in Oakland, CA.,  moments before a fire that has been described as a symptom of the Bay Area housing crisis;

(2)   the demolition of part of Baishizhou, an urban village in Shenzhenin  Guangdong Province, China, that provides affordable housing unavailable on the formal market and thus fulfils social needs for housing as well as vibrant sense of community;

(3)   police subduing housing protestors in Langa township, Cape Town, South Africa;

(4)   Michael Slager laughing about his adrenaline pumping after shooting Walter Scott in North Charleston, SC; and

(5)   the incongruous ear-witness testimony from Ferguson, MO.,  of the death of Michael Brown.

So much hinges on how we listen. Some may hear in these recordings a zoning violation, the bright future of urban redevelopment, anarchic violence, and, although it beggars belief, white fear. Others might hear alternative social spaces, the loss of a dynamic public realm, displacement resulting from gentrification, and indifference to racial profiling and the violence of white supremacy. This illustrates that listening is not just a means to register social conditions. Rather, how we hear components of the urban soundscapes determines what we hear of inequality and therefore what we do about it. In short, listening is able to do justice or not.

I construe the practice of field recording that lies at the center of my current research project as an exercise in listening-as-justice. Via audio recording, it is possible to learn how various actors mobilize practices of listening and sounding in the course of struggles in order to make underlying political-economic relations more readily audible. There is now a body of scholarship on representations of capital, but much of this has focused on visual imaginaries. Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle, for instance, have recently taken up Jameson’s notion of “cognitive mapping” in their Cartographies of the Absolute, a study of how artists, film-makers, writers, and theorists have in recent decades grappled with the problem of mapping global capital. My project offers something of a complement and a response to this book by asking: What do urban political economies sound like? And what does resistance to neoliberal governmentality sound like?

What I call “cart-otographics” is the science of mapping political economy’s spatial distributions by ear. Much like the echolocation techniques used by bats, this involves sounding out certain points within the urban fabric. I think of soundmapping as a kind of stethoscopic listening that can hear at only one point various blockages, collapses, and imminent failures up to a systemic level. My project listens less for the circulations of capital than for micro-points of crisis where social well-being is in jeopardy and where political-economic antagonisms reach a certain intensity. In other words, I listen for the health of cities, attuning my ear to the ways in which deteriorating conditions and crises of habitability manifest themselves in the changing sonic composition of urban space.


A significant part of my project involves looking at the contributions sound artists have made significant to our understanding of the role played by listening both as an instrument of oppression and also in promoting more equal distributions of urban habitability. Multimedia artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, who privileges the medium of sound in his work, has been investigating the practices of forensic audio analysis and juridical listening used in asylum applications, cases of police shooting, and so forth. He points out that, for the last clip I played, the expert testimony focused on the gunshots, the analysis showing that the officer was stationary and supporting his claim of self-defense. But no one listened to the voice in the foreground—the unfazed speaker who pauses only briefly before continuing the voice memo for the object of his admiration, pausing in acknowledgment of the gunshots as if they were no more a passing train in the background. It seems as if the speaker has become so desensitized to the sound of shootings in his neighborhood that he ignores them, which may explain why he didn’t alert emergency services. More than this, the judge instructed not to listen to the man’s voice, therefore excluding from consideration the kind of indifference and asking jurors to turn a deaf ear to a kind of politically-determined deafness to the material conditions that produce both gun violence and unreliable witnesses.

Audibility, then, isn’t just a function of acoustics. It’s also a product of ideology. In other words, hearing is something that can be produced and manipulated for explicit political ends or as part of unconscious cultural assumptions. Politics, paraphrasing an argument made by the philosopher Jacques Rancière, decides who is more or less audible. This makes sense when we think of listening as a metaphor for political representation: some people’s voices are heard more loudly than others. The problem is that the conditions of listening are essentially determined by the same authorities that mete out injustice disproportionately against black and brown communities. It is not simply that non-white voices are rendered inaudible, but more often that they are interpreted as meaningless noise—an anguished cry without articulated—and moreover that whiteness itself remains a transparent norm and thus goes unheard.

The irony is that we live in an age of increasing sonic surveillance and yet there’s one thing that we’re rapidly losing our ability to hear: the very hearing that decides who lives and who dies. The expert witness in the case was the creator of ShotSpotter, a system of microphones mounted on the tops of buildings in troubled neighborhoods in the US and South Africa, designed to provide real-time pinpointing of gunshots. This sonic surveillance system was designed to remedy underreporting of gun fire in poor neighborhoods. Besides the kind of indifference exemplified by the earwitness on the recording, others who hear shots may too afraid that the way they hear them won’t get a hearing. We often imagine that the voice comes first and the ear follows, but the oppressed only speak when they’re confident they’ll be heard. There is a danger that ShotSpotter will exacerbate the underlying problem because it is imposed on these communities from above without listening to their concerns. Upending the anxieties about privacy, Abu Hamdan speculates about appropriating this technology to hear police gunfire instead. He provocatively suggests that we should be demanding more, rather than less, listening in order to produce other forms of listening, produced through grass-roots activism, that would do justice and make cities safer and more equitable.


There is, then, a dialectic between material conditions and the modalities of listening they produce, which in turn may entrench, silence, or amplify inequalities. Fortunately, how we listen is not determined entirely by neoliberal political economy. It therefore becomes possible to imagine producing new ways of listening that in turn can help to overcome the obstacles to effecting real, lasting transformation of our cities. At the time of Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador, many commentators and participants bemoaned the insufficient dialogue between actors at different levels and insufficient attention given to bottom-up initiatives. Such multi-level dialogue and participation is vitally important if we are to promote meaningful citizen participation and build solidarities. If we are to effectively implement the New Urban Agenda, we must learn to listen better to the inhabitants of cities and also to mobilize collective listening practices.

If Abu Hamdan’s reappropriation of ShotSpotter is purely speculative, sound art collective Ultra-red, which was founded by two AIDS activists, has been far more actively engaged in promoting and transforming habits of listening on the ground. The collective’s members have, since the 1990s, been involved across the US, the UK, and Germany in local community struggles around housing, immigration, education, and labor. In an installation recently exhibited at The 8th Floor in New York as part of a group show that examined the role of voice in activism, Ultra-red present a “libretto of demands.” SILENT|LISTEN (2010) assembles a series of video and audio recordings of seven performances from 2005 to 2006 that had been staged in tactical occupations of major American art institutions in order to make the point that sometimes the arts are the only public space from which it is possible speak out about unlivable conditions.

Although such projects and especially their early interventions focus on sonic representations, they now intervene more directly in local organizing, developing soundwalks and listening sessions for communities, asking by way of example: what is the sound of austerity, of the border, or, conversely, of housing for all, of alternatives to incarceration, of anti-racism? Participants drawn from the local community comes together to debate what they hear and to discover that they may hear parallel struggles in the same soundscapes. These exercises thus sow the seeds for coalition-building and empower local communities to take a more active role in decision-making.

The idea is that out of these interactions new listening protocols emerge in order to make audible that which had previously gone unheard. Collective listening becomes a mode of inquiry, allowing groups to investigate the material conditions that in some way restrict or liberate their existence. Stopping amid busy urban life to ask the simple question “what did you hear?” prompts a more outward orientation, turning the ear toward other and the shared environment and thereby helping to mitigate the tendency toward atomized, alienated lives. It also encourages participants to reflect on how they experience and learn about their struggle in its historical and current incarnations. Listening, undertaken in this way as collective “militant sound investigations,” thus provides the impetus for local organizing, rooted in specific constituencies, conditions, and spaces.

Without this patient, bottom-up effort to transform listening habits, generic promises to listen, the ear condescending from on high, are liable to be as empty—and a similar danger exists with the New Urban Agenda. Policymakers and the commentariat alike often use the idea of listening to sideline justifiable fears, suppress dissent, and deflect attention from systemic inequalities. It is hard, therefore, to imagine a path toward more equitable and sustainable cities without understanding the very concrete everyday ways in which distributions of aural acuity and deafness impact upon habitability at a micro level and without also giving citizens the tools to transform the conditions of their own audibility.

Naomi Waltham-Smith is Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Music and Belonging Between Revolution and Restoration (OUP 2017) and a forthcoming book, The Sound of Biopolitics. Her work on urban soundscapes is supported by the Mellon Humanities+Urbanism+Design Initiative, the Price Lab for Digital Humanities, and a fellowship at the Schloss Akademie Solitude.