When I began writing “The City in Concert”, I had already drawn a distinction between traditional traffic noise, work sites and that of the amplified effects of the widespread use of piped in music and verbal messages in today’s big cities.
Since then, I have continued along this line of research and the “Concert” has been analyzed from the point of view of its effects on the environment, with the focus being on shared everyday space on principle transit lines, the waiting areas and their syntony with the environment.
A space can be formally defined as neutral when its original functions remain dominant. On the contrary, it undergoes erosion when conflicting extraneous elements are introduced, affecting the viability and senses of those who are crossing them. This process can take place everywhere, as everywhere we are surrounded by waiting areas and even inside an inaccessible or deserted one we are potential recipients of invasive music and messages that we cannot close out.
The neutral area
To define the collective area, not affected by acoustical environmental pathology, I coined the term “neutral area” for those areas of public domain and destined for public use, not originally intended for entertainment, and where undesired elements which have nothing whatsoever to do with their essential function are not allowed. The sound of a train is an expression of the consequence of its own function, while the effect of an advertising spot transmitted in a station has nothing to do with the train’s function or with the needs of the traveller, who finds himself there. Its very uselessness is why it erodes the neutrality of that space.
A “Neutral Area” therefore serves a primary function, for example crossing, reaching or passing on foot along platforms (when dealing with transit lines) and a parallel one (but not secondary in importance) of recouping time for ourselves.
The waiting period is a concept not always deemed important enough in respect to the primary one that is offered by the transit service. Actually, a part of that service the user pays for directly or indirectly through taxation and includes the waiting period.
The neutral space is not necessarily a quiet one. It is space for individual initiative, serving as a free time interval during transit or between stops. It can also be a time of boredom or just letting the mind wander – depending on the individual’s state of mind – and should not be conditioned by external factors.
The introduction of artificial sound in the ambience, even when of no interest, creates interference in one’s potentially introspective mental space, especially when it has to do with information containing a caption or requires decoding. Erosion of neutral space acts on the parallel function of free time in gap and interval situations.
Paradoxically, erosion of neutral space is becoming more widespread, while at the same time, there is an increase in situations of daily intervals through mobility linked to labour flexibility, to the dislocation of professional offices, not to mention technology that makes it possible to wipe out distances while at the same time creating greater opportunities of movement and more stopovers in the shared space of waiting areas.
|Neutral areas And erosion inside non- neutral – Sports complexes||Neutral Area |
|Neutral eroded Area|
with broadcast music
|Marked -not neutral |
(specific aerobatics gym with music based on type of exercise)
|Primary function |
(for doing exercises)
|Parallel function |
(think about specific things)
|Yes||No||Included in the primary|
The graph shows the neutral areas and the erosion process they undergo, depending on the primary or parallel function of the recouping period in the various situations that can actually characterize a public space (in this case the gym).
When dealing with aerobic gyms that are marked not neutral, the user already knows there will be background music that, in this case, is part of the primary function and includes the parallel function of recouping time: loud music is necessary here as it is in other places in which it is unthinkable to go if one wants to reflect (discotheques, etc,)
Neutral erosion mechanism
The “neutral area” undergoes erosion through acoustical centralization of loud-speakers broadcasting sound from overhead, through the sum of the acoustic effects coming from below (for example, cell phones and acoustic alarms, in situations of intense traffic and buildings for entertainment, with the aim of reaching potential customers. This is the present situation in some Italian cities that are particularly rich like Padova and Bologna and recently the places of debates that involve more than one issue: legality, tolerance, social needs, residents’ rights, and the needs of those who, in the same area, operate commercially (both categories are always more closely related in the present urban debate).
However, the centralization of sound messages through fixed equipment imbedded in the same physical structure (interior and exterior walls and dividers along roads, in malls and hospitals) is at present the fastest spreading and most dangerous system in neutral space erosion. It is even applied in those European countries that should have maintained a certain independence and discretion in respect to individual use of this technology. Some German and Dutch stations have blaring acoustical broadcasting systems.
Since I described “the concert that envelopes the city”, acoustical centralization through loud-speakers has been taking over ever larger reception areas (entire buildings, even whole city blocks, and occasionally fairs and “white nights” – all night events). It is easier to become conscious of an inconvenience attributable to the behaviour of individuals than mechanisms placed high overhead, often belonging to the same service organization: not even the person having the authority to decide can annul or even moderate the volume since this begins functioning automatically at the moment the structure becomes operative. It is the sound track that becomes the structure through a self-acquired legitimacy that tends to become standard practice within those environments that should be protected from them, like those of health and instruction.
Erosion of neutral space through exploitation of potentially social interactive areas
Starting around the 80s, acoustically broadcast information has been increasingly concentrated in public spaces. Significant social changes have determined the increase in shared areas affected by this neutral area erosion: tuning in everywhere to numerous radio and T.V channels have in part contributed to the creation of a global acoustical landscape which each country in its own way has adopted. In particular, changing to a tertiary society has ended up in a progressive compression of potentially interactive social space by means of ever more fixed, installed and structurally incorporated sound tracks (in offices, malls, streets) up to the maximum level of exploitation of public space. This is what makes them the objective of an economic transaction between firms and is carried out through their sales departments’ publicity space in stations, cinemas and an ever greater number of locations where the user buys tickets to access a means of transport.
The fact that public space, used as a reception area, becomes the object of speculation, makes it clear that from now on, whatever the common territory, especially that of transit or convergence, can become lucrative through easy exploitation that encounters no building restrictions or obstacles in accordance with a widespread tendency at the European level.
However, something is beginning to change! The new European directive on noise, D.L.GS: No. 194, of 19/8/05 provides for the inclusion of a description that precisely determines passive sound and music disturbance, and not only measurable damage calculated in decibels issuing from sources in connection with industry.
It happens, however, even in countries where “neutrality” is an inherent environmental fact in transit and crossing areas, that intimidation architecture tends to prevail with mechanized music and the absence of benches along platforms – voluntarily inhospitable – with the object of keeping away tramps and time-wasters in stations and other gathering places .
We need to see if these induced deadening effects will not in time end up putting into practice a general lassitude even in those member states where an innate civic sense remains.
Public space continues to be defined as such, however in reality it is gradually being privatized, through an undeclared process involving the forming of ever larger and legalized “reception areas”. This conceptual conflict is at the root of the erosion of neutrality in shared areas: a similar manoeuvre in rarely frequented areas would not result in any advantage for a firm. We must ask ourselves then when and in what way the privatization of these areas, offering necessary services, can show a positive return for those who use them.
Even accepting that the widespread use of advertising spots results in revenues for the firms managing the public service of making it more comfortable and economically accessible, the commercial equipment and sound track elements introduced have a negative effect of hindrance, of discomfort.
Due to the ever denser populations in almost all of Europe that utilize means of transport and other public services, there is a greater tendency to exploit the spaces that accommodate these services. Moreover, even in large American cities, where these spaces are much more extended, the public using transportation lines is one of potential consumers. However, the stations of New York, Washington and Boston have not been transformed into advertising spaces. The only messages broadcast regard information that can serve the traveller, (the next stop, destination…etc.). And it is curious that the United States which is well-known for its free trade mentality does not take part in competing for these spaces in which the user is both listener and possible consumer of the goods and services announced over the loud-speakers.
Even the cities of Brazil maintain this neutrality, at least in transit areas where, moreover, the public that utilizes these services is not made up of the usual consumer of unnecessary goods. However, the monitoring and loud-speaker equipment transmitting standardized messages tends to become an ever more global practice and, in time, will include what are at present developing countries.
Physical and Communicative Erosion of Neutral Space
In our society of special events and urban commercialization using lights, equipment and mechanized music, the areas for community use now result eroded by the concrete and communicative elements that occupy them, while at the same time they reduce the space available for public use: for thought and word that becomes interaction. This is because mental space is potentially introspective, meaning time that can be ideally spent in an empty context in the sense of “clean”, free to be individually interpreted, that is neutral.
Communicative space needs to be analyzed in the same way as the physical one. Moreover, in the post-modern period the two dimensions tend to converge. Commercialization of urban areas, with the equipment and stands for newspapers, and bottled water etc., that are erected on railway platforms, end up being a compression of communicative space, as a result of the sound-tracks aimed at the consumer together with the anxiety generating effects caused by traffic from adjacent areas.
The territory, due precisely to its physical dimensions, loses in turn its identity and consideration, because the din of the electric devices renders the areas similar and yet far from any sense of belonging. This is reflected with particular impact on mobility: the special event that attracts the multitude is imposed on the daily function of the transit systems, in a violent narrowing of transportation space: especially when the metropolis is not structurally equipped to accommodate important events like cinema festivals or “white nights”.
It will be easier to neglect this territory when it is legally transformed, ostentatiously decorated, has vulgar sound tracks and is polluted with litter and commercial rubbish. The consequence of such over-loading is a general deafening caused by over-exposure to a hotch-potch of sounds together with the technical effects with which the individual isolates himself from the real context he finds himself in.
This state of distraction and isolation is reflected on the roads most dramatically, because distraction at the wheel (as reported by Istat 2007) remains the principal cause of road accidents – even surpassing drunken driving.
Speeding remains the main cause of viability difficulty and lack of spontaneous social control, resulting in traffic that creates fear.
In countries where stiffer regulations are enforced like England and the USA, laws have been passed regarding deafness caused by the use of technological communication along the roads.
An experimental project using an interactive map
I decided to use some locations, symbolically neutral, marked on an interactive map to describe Milan.
You can access them on my website,www.silviazambrini.com.
The parameters are based on the following concepts:
1) Functionality: the street without impediments, which you can cross normally.
2) Essentials: a bar, a station and an open space without added amplified sounds and anxiety creating noises caused by traffic at a standstill.
3) Pleasantness: a sense of respite (trees).
Broad perspective (length and depth of the distance to be covered)
Meeting places (absence of heavy traffic in the area and nearby).
Neutral areas can be found in the open (streets and squares) and under cover (stations, sales outlets, etc.). Fenced gardens are not included in the neutral areas as they are accessible for a limited number of hours per day. The neutral area (especially those in the open air) are not considered a protected oasis. Its characteristics of shared, open availability coincides with its continual linking function with other places.
It is not sufficient that a street has little traffic to consider it neutral. It is necessary that it is not adjacent to a converging thoroughfare with heavy traffic. It is also necessary that a city square, including its surroundings does not become a parking lot.
It is even better if in those surroundings one can find a bar without broadcasting: I wanted to point out some of these places that are getting rarer and rarer.
The criteria used to formulate the indicators reflect the considerations that emerged during this mainly qualitative research based on the deductive method. The bibliographic material gathered (see my latest essay “L’erosione del Neutro”) and the observations carried out in large European and American cities, using comparative analyses of the various urban and legislation structures in force, are fundamental to that end
A series of conflicting variables represented with figurative symbols reflect the neutral concept as a prerogative to the existence and functionality of a place: the rectilinear course without obstacles for the person following it (from the mother pushing twins in a baby carriage to the handicapped individual), the place in which one can stop – without being deafened, in complete mental harmony: the function of being able to recoup time, that should be yours, through thought and concentration, is a constant to all neutral areas.
The aim of this experimental project underway, is to let people know that we must be open-minded to and positive/ decided as regards these places that still exist and are still liveable. Places that could easily increase in number if we are aware and act collectively.
All cities have there own beauty, even those with no particularly interesting history. However, we must think of urban living as our actual way of life, when crossing a space, perceiving it, listening to it.
The neutral, therefore, as identification of the place through which we move, restores us and is where people can communicate.
These spaces do not have their identity. For example, marked areas without broadcasting and meeting accommodations do not exist, (at least except for those located near a hospital or other similar structures). These are different from others that are so marked: unpolluted, safeguarded and green areas, places where smoking is not allowed, etc.
What is taken for granted, without having any collocation or definition, can be easily cancelled. The waiting and linking areas have long been privy to induced atmospheres and unwieldy, commercial equipment, a fact that is now considered normal. At present neutral places have become rare to the point that if we do not begin to place value on them, they will disappear completely.
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 Centralized advertising information is not transmitted at background music volumes. To be heard and decoded, the volume must be kept above 60 dB, which presupposes insomnia, disturbance for those concentrating, migraine headaches and other physical problems which affect the individual and his rapport with the community.
 Traffic intentionally blocked or moving very slowly, a little at a time because of loading and unloading, implies the presence of persistent honking and noise, that though not expressed with specific warning signals, are great anxiety producers. The effect of sudden braking and burning rubber when taking off, though a sign of the event and not an anticipation of it, cause a state of nervous alteration in the same way, because these effects alert the brain to dangerous situations.
 Morosini, “Incidenti è allarme sulle strade” (Accidents on the Roads), in Corriere della Sera 16 July 2007.