Urban sound mapping in sound art and built environment practice

  • Conor McCafferty

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This dissertation seeks to draw urban sound mapping practices into dialogue with built environment practices: architecture, urban design, and urban planning. Contemporary sound maps typically take the form of point-and-click web map interfaces, from which the user can stream or download field recordings. Many are co-created, distributing authorial agency among hundreds or even thousands of participants. However, while there are commonalities among sound maps, the practice does not follow any standardised approach: it is a locus of experimentation. Sound maps have emerged in the context of a wide range of scholarship and practice across sound art, sound studies, media studies, and acoustic ecology. I will situate the practice here in new territories of architecture, planning and urbanism.

The thesis examines sound maps epistemologically, unpacking the rich assemblages of knowledge they hold and the wide range of purposes that they exhibit. It presents a catalogue of web-based sound maps since the late 1990s, which serves as source material for a reading of sound maps as participatory platforms. This initial reading charts a recent history of sound maps as cultural phenomena that emerge from sonic practices, participatory practices, and new spatial media, and that exhibit heterogeneous purposes. Co-created urban sound maps foster a diffuse, restless quality of auditory attention across multiple scales, thus challenging any straightforward application, but nonetheless pointing to numerous possibilities for spatial analysis.

The thesis also asks how sound maps can be used in urban pedagogy: as tools for teaching and learning about urban space. It examines top-down (vertical) as well as peer-to-peer (horizontal) modes of learning as facilitated through sound maps. It further questions how sound maps can be incorporated into more formal teaching contexts with architecture students, for example as a method in site analysis and urban design. Through field experiments, it investigates how acoustic cartographies can be applied in the context of distinct enquiries into urban space: integrating sound in a holistic public realm strategy (Linen Quarter,Belfast, Northern Ireland); as a method of articulating the range of “sonic places” (Cusack, 2017) to be found in a city (Halmstad, Sweden); and as a means of appraising the intangible heritage of a Modernist urban planning project (Craigavon, Northern Ireland).

The thesis concludes by proposing a new, speculative model of sound mapping that (1) is oriented towards the localized, specific scales that are relevant in built environment practice (i.e. architectural and urban sites); (2) is multimodal in the representational tactics that it adopts, such that participants can contribute field recordings but also several other forms of visual and textual materials; and (3) imagines the potentials and future transformations of sound environments. Thus, the thesis offers a critical intervention for one potential direction for the future of sound mapping.
Date of AwardDec 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Ireland Department for the Economy
SupervisorSarah Lappin (Supervisor), Gascia Ouzounian (Supervisor) & Simon Waters (Supervisor)


  • acoustic cartography
  • architecture
  • built environment
  • cartography
  • sound studies
  • sound art
  • sound mapping
  • spatial analysis
  • urban pedagogy
  • urban planning

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