IN 1962 THE American anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin wrote an ecological critique of contemporary urban life titled Our Synthetic Environment. The book lacks the tight focus of Rachel Carson’s landmark work on the effects of pesticide use, The Silent Spring, which was published in the US a few months later that year, and it’s not been reprinted since perhaps the 1970s.
Nonetheless Our Synthetic Environment is a minor classic of ecological writing and its roots go back at least as far as Peter Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops.
In Our Synthetic Environment, Bookchin begins by challenging the belief that living conditions in cities have improved in every way:
In Chapter Three he describes what would now be called noise pollution:
Bookchin contrasts this with medieval city life as imagined by the historian Lewis Mumford in his book The City in History, which was published the year before in 1961:
Sources such as Fitz Stephens’ twelfth-century panegyric A Description of London have to be read with caution. Bookchin uncritically accepts Mumford’s upbeat account, but you can read a necessary counterbalance in Emily Cockayne’s recent Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England: 1600–1770.
It’s not easy to give a concise answer when asked ‘How has the urban sound environment changed?’ Here are some trends or processes which might inform it:
1. Increasing extent of urban sprawl together with decreases in local population density.
2. Greater levels of social and technical organisation meaning fewer riots, stampedes, fires, collapsing buildings, or other mishaps.
3. Limits placed on street life through policing, traders’ permits, licensing, building control, and volume of traffic.
4. Fewer percussive sounds, including those of horses’ hooves, workshop-level craft industry, heavy industry, and goods being manhandled.
5. Homogenisation of the urban sound environment with fewer differences heard between parts of the city, between weekdays and weekends, and between day and night.
6. The rise of pervasive broadband noise from road and air traffic, and air conditioning.
7. A decline in public broadcast speech in all spheres of activity except transport, due to increasing literacy, social atomisation, and the near-removal of absolute poverty by welfare systems.
All kinds of other factors could be added and there are inevitably exceptions. A compressed and lossy formulation might be: The urban sound environment grows more monotonous as the city becomes more organised.