“Listening to the City”: Amplifying voices, shaping sonic infrastructure

Listening is an undervalued act in our civic sphere, where the squeaky wheel routinely gets the grease. But MIT’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab), a center for planning and development within the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), is drawing attention to the role that sound and, more importantly, listening play in urban planning and social innovation. Their “Listening to the City” project is a conference and toolkit created by MIT CoLab, LA Listens and the Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI) and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. It equips policymakers, city planners and communities with “methods for using sound in participatory action research, community engagement processes and social change advocacy,” says Allegra Williams, CoLab’s Director of Campus and Community Learning and a principal partner behind “Listening to the City.”

The two-day conference, which took place May 25-26, 2017, centered on how sound art, oral histories, podcasts, radio broadcasts, music and all sorts of sonic interventions can connect people and shape cities. Williams says that using sound to help communities address such challenges as social inequality or ecological crises, aligns with CoLab’s broader goals:

“CoLab believes firmly in the power of art and culture to activate connection across social divides, strengthening possibilities for social justice, particularly for those at the margins. For the past several years, CoLab’s Empathetic Aesthetics and Community Media programs have infused creative methods of engagement and inquiry into research, planning, design and development as ways of helping stakeholders illuminate complex socio-political dynamics and cultivate humanistic understandings of realities rarely captured via traditional social science practice.”

The idea for “Listening to the City” was sparked two years ago, when Wendy Hsu, a sound ethnographer and research and impact strategist for the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, began talking to the MIT CoLab on Twitter about integrating sound work into urban planning. “I noticed that cities are often talked about as physical infrastructure,” Hsu says. “City planning and policy don’t engage with the sensory experience of the residents.” These conversations led to a guest blog series for CoLab by LA Listens, a community engagement project, which Hsu formed with Steven Kemper and Jessica Blickley. They used the series to launch “Listening to the City,” by posting a call for urban planners and organizers to conduct sound walks in their cities. Responses came in from all over the world—from Houston to Accra to Istanbul to Mexico City. The next step was getting this diverse and invested group of artists, activists, musicians, researchers, students and urban planners into the same room to hone their models and, Hsu says, to begin “an organized and creative effort to spread this unique set of practices.”

“In my city government job, I noticed that cities are often talked about as physical infrastructure. City planning and policy don’t engage with the sensory experience of the residents.” – Wendy Hsu, LA Listens

The conference showcased projects that ranged from community activism to the purely aesthetic. Mutetelenu Kalama from the Children’s Radio Foundation presented her organization’s work using radio to create youth-led dialogue about pressing issues, such as health or climate change, in communities across Africa. This program has trained 1700 youth journalists and has 7 million weekly listeners in 6 countries and 28 broadcast languages. Danish sound artist Jonas Kirkegaard introduced participants to his project The Overheard, which consists of six site-specific sound installations in Aarhus, Denmark, a streaming website for live audio from these outdoor sites and concerts combining the streamed soundscape into live performances. Jennifer Stoever workshopped ideas for the next phase of The Binghamton Historical Soundwalk Project, a multi-year chronicle of issues facing this former manufacturing town designed to improve the “town and gown” relationship. In “Sister Outsider: Say Her Name,” musician Abby Dobson used spoken word and song to celebrate and memorialize the black women’s lives lost due to police brutality since the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name movements. Claudia Paraschiv’s Secret Languages poetry presentation involved people telling stories and reading poems aloud in languages they only speak in private. Lori Lobenstine, Program Design Lead at DS4SI and a co-organizer of “Listening to the City,” says, “[Secret Languages] was remarkably moving, even when we couldn’t understand the words. And audience members joined in as well, finding poems on their phones, telling their stories and sharing poems in languages from Hindi to Yiddish.” There were podcast production workshops, sound mapping sessions and a variety of presentation formats, designed to “strike a balance between doing and talking,” says Hsu.

“We wanted to bring some of the conference outside of MIT, and in some cases, literally into the streets….” – Allegra Williams, CoLab

Off-site programs ensured the event remained community-centered. Williams points out that, “planning is a participatory discipline, and the most effective community change processes are centered around the lived experience and wisdom of the local community.” Participants traveled across the city from the MIT Community Innovators Lab to the Design Studio for Social Intervention, Podcast Garage and Zumix, an East Boston-based nonprofit organization dedicated to youth music and radio programs. Steady rain, graduation traffic and the travails of the MBTA only added texture to their sonic experience. In order to listen to the city itself, Williams says, “we wanted to bring some of the conference outside of MIT, and in some cases, literally into the streets. We introduced folks to Urbano Project’s mobile mural and listening station on gentrification and displacement, for example. It was important that we showcase and elevate the incredible work of many local organizations we partner with, and hear about their work firsthand.”

Participants said the experience reminded them “that sound has boundless potential to disarm, engage, and deepen our connections to ourselves and our environments,” and “how creating social change is actually pretty feasible when you have fervent, creative people behind a project.” During the summer and fall 2017, CoLab, together with LA Listens and the DS4SI, will develop, design and disseminate a toolkit to share the working methods discussed at the conference and additional strategies online, in print and in person at conferences and community events. “We want to turn our knowledge into a repeatable and actionable form so that community-based sound practices can be adopted widely,” says Hsu. The organizers invite anyone who has an interest in connecting with this work to get in touch with them and “get plugged in.”


UPDATE APRIL 2018: Listening to the City: Community Research and Action through Sound and Story is now available. Find this handbook and other resources on the CoLab website.

Posted on August 11, 2017 by Sharon Lacey