Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘noise pollution’


Parisian Politics and a Changing Soundscape

AFTER A VISIT TO PARIS in the early 1950s to record everyday sounds of the city, the pioneering sound recordist Ludwig Koch said, “There is an atmosphere in sound that belongs only to Paris”. For the last ten years or so I’ve been working to record and archive the Parisian atmosphere in sound that Ludwig Koch found so entrancing.

The Parisian urban soundscape is a complex mixture of intricately woven sounds ranging from the spectacular, to the ordinary, everyday sounds around us – the sounds we all hear but seldom stop to listen to, and although I find the Parisian soundscape endlessly fascinating there are two aspects of it that particularly interest me. The first is how the soundscape changes as one moves from the centre of the city to the periphery and the second is how the soundscape changes over time.

Walking from the city centre to the periphery while listening attentively to the surrounding soundscape one can trace not only the city’s physical history but also its social, cultural and political history. For example, the sounds one hears in the centre of the city, in the Champs Elysées, Place Vêndome or Avenue Montaigne lets say, are very different to those one will hear in the rue de Belleville in the east of the city. The sounds of conspicuous consumption emanating from high-end luxury goods emporia and exclusive haute-couture fashion houses in the former stand in stark contrast to a sub-Saharan street market, a Moroccan café or a Chinese supermarket in the latter.

Observing how the city’s soundscape changes over time is important because it gives an insight into the contemporary changes in the social, cultural and political landscape. For example, over the last ten years I’ve recorded many Parisian street demonstrations covering a wide range of issues representing a range of social concerns and political sentiments. Those concerns and sentiments often change over time so by listening to the recordings it’s possible to follow changes in the contemporary social, cultural and political history of the city.

There are many examples of how changing sounds reflect a changing social, cultural and political landscape so I will use one current example to illustrate the point. This I think is a really good example because it’s a hot topic in Paris at the moment.


The story begins 1966 with the then French President, Georges Pompidou.

Georges Pompidou was the French Prime Minister from 1962 to 1968 and then President of France from 1969 until his death in 1974. He was a lover of the automobile and he argued that a freeway should replace the grass-covered banks of the Seine by saying: “les Français aiment leurs bagnoles” (the French love their motors).

On March 27, 1966, the decision was made that the existing roadways along the Seine should be connected to create a continuous expressway along the banks of the river through the centre of Paris.  The Voie Georges Pompidou (George Pompidou Expressway) was completed in 1967, and runs along the right bank of the Seine for 13 kilometres from the Porte du Point-du-Jour in the south-west to the Porte de Bercy in the south-east.

Fortunately, there was only room on the riverbank for a two-lane expressway; Pompidou actually wanted to cover the Seine with concrete to create room for an even wider expressway but the environmental movement and others managed to put a brake on that and any further freeway expansion in Paris.

In 2014, as part of my Paris Bridges Project, I went to the Pont Marie, one of the thirty-seven bridges crossing la Seine within the Paris city limits, to record the sounds on, under and around the bridge for my Paris Soundscapes Archive. I discovered that Georges Pompidou’s Expressway ran underneath the arch of the Pont Marie on the right bank of la Seine. 

One didn’t have to be an expert in urban soundscapes to realise that the incessant stream of traffic passing under the bridge would impact the soundscape both under and around the bridge.


The Georges Pompidou Expressway from on top of the Pont Marie on the right bank of la Seine in 2014

Let’s scroll forward now to September 2016 when the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, signed a decree on behalf of the Paris City Council banning motor vehicles from a 3.3 km section of the berges de la rive droite, the right bank of the Seine, stretching from the tunnel at the Jardin des Tuileries near the Louvre to the Henri IV tunnel near the Bastille, transforming it into a park for pedestrians and cyclists. The Paris City Council debate on the matter was quite contentious but Anne Hidalgo won the day declaring the “end of the urban motorway in Paris and the reconquest of the Seine”.


In 2002, Paris began closing a section of the right bank of the Seine to create a temporary summer beach complete with real sand and sun loungers and in 2013, Anne Hidalgo pedestrianised a 2.5 km section of the left bank.

By comparing the soundscape around the Pont Marie both before and after the 2016 decree we can assess the impact that politics has had on this part of the Parisian environment.

This was the scene from under the right bank arch of the bridge in 2014:


And this was the scene from the same place earlier this week:


And now let’s listen to the sounds of the Pont Marie from the berges de la rive droite in 2014.

Pont Marie from the right bank in 2014:

And from the same place in March 2018.

Pont Marie from the right bank in 2018:

I think the sounds from 2014 speak for themselves: incessant passing traffic creating excessive noise pollution quite possibly having a debilitating effect on our hearing as well as our mental and physical health – not to mention the noxious emissions to the atmosphere.

A political decision in 2016 though has created a completely different sonic environment. Now, the sound of traffic can still be heard from the Quai de la Hôtel de Ville above and behind the right bank, from the roadway on the Pont Marie and from the quai on the left bank opposite, but now the sound of the traffic has become part of the sonic environment rather than dominating it. The sounds that feature now are sounds that could not be heard from the same place in 2014: children’s voices, footsteps, the swish of passing bicycles, the sonic footprint of a passing Batobus, not to mention two Gendarmes on horseback. This part of the right bank has become a completely different sonic experience.

So, was the decision led by the Mayor of Paris to pedestrianise this part of the right bank a good thing?

Anne Hidalgo sees it as part of a comprehensive policy to reduce the number of cars in Paris, one spin-off of which should be a reduction in the amount of noxious emissions added to an already over polluted Parisian atmosphere. The use of diesel engines is already restricted in central Paris and a low-emission zone bans trucks on weekdays.

Although not an expert in atmospheric pollution, I do know something about noise pollution, which is broadly described as unwanted sound that either interferes with normal activities such as sleep or conversation, or disrupts or diminishes one’s quality of life. Excessive traffic and construction work are the major contributors to noise pollution in central Paris, although the construction work is often at least temporary.

It can be argued of course that noise is subjective and we are conditioned by our culture as to how much noise we consider acceptable. If you want to explore more about this I recommend R. Murray Schafer’s seminal book The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World.

For some reason, noise pollution seems to get less attention than atmospheric pollution even though we know it affects our psychological and physiological health and our behaviour.

I hope my examples show that, what ever else it’s done, the pedestrianisation of this part of the right bank has much reduced the noise pollution and generally enhanced the sonic environment.

So, the decision to pedestrianise this part of the right bank is a good thing then?

Well, not everyone agrees. Motorist groups vehemently opposed both left and right bank road closures, accusing the city’s socialist administration of a vendetta against drivers.


Pont Marie from the right bank of the Seine

In February this year, the tribunal administratif de Paris annulled the Paris City Council’s September 2016 decree saying that the decree had been adopted “after a public inquiry drawn up on the basis of an impact study” that “contained inaccuracies, omissions and deficiencies as to the effects of the project on automobile traffic, atmospheric pollutant emissions and noise pollution, which is key data for evaluating the general interest of the project”. The Mayor of Paris immediately launched an appeal and shortly after, signed another decree re-designating this stretch of the right bank a car-free zone.

This debate is much wider than it seems. It’s really a debate that, as France 24 put it, “pits pedestrians against motorists, urbanites against suburbanites, and left-wingers against conservatives, all battling under a hail of studies advancing curiously contradictory traffic, noise and pollution data at the service of competing agendas.”

So much for politics!

I would like to leave you with one other sound from the right bank of the Pont Marie, a sound that simply could not be heard before the 2016 decree. 


The second arch of the bridge on the right bank includes a pedestrian walkway and walking through this archway now it’s actually possible to hear the sounds of the river, sounds that were completely subsumed by traffic noise in 2014.

Pont Marie under the pedestrian arch:

Whatever the fate of the berges de la rive droite turns out to be, I hope I’ve shown that a changing soundscape can provide a commentary on the social, cultural and political events of the day.



From January to June

ALTHOUGH PERHAPS NOT quite yet an obsession, searching for quiet in the busy, traffic strewn city of Paris has become a major preoccupation for me, even though it is a Sisyphean task since quiet is a rare commodity in the Parisian soundscape.

Just to be clear, for me quiet isn’t necessarily the absence of noise, but rather a state where individual sounds, which are always there but usually shrouded in a cloak of more aggressive, often unwelcome sounds, are allowed to speak and tell their own story.

Aggressive and unwelcome sounds can be found in abundance at any of the major road intersections in Paris, intersections like Place de la Bastille for example, which straddles the 4th, 11th and 12th arrondissements. Seven roads converge here, each spewing a toxic ribbon of traffic around the 1830 July Column.

One might be forgiven for thinking that amidst the cacophonous noise pollution around Place de la Bastille quiet might be elusive, but it can be found if one searches diligently.


One of the streets leading from Place de la Bastille is Rue de la Roquette, a seventeenth century street once home to the French poet Paul Verlaine, the dramatist Michel-Jean Sedaine, the historian Jules Michelet and, for a time in the 1980s, the celebrity chef and restaurateur Gordon Ramsay. At N°2 Rue de la Roquette is a seventeenth century archway leading into the Passage du Cheval Blanc.


Once home to timber warehouses supplying the cabinetmakers and furniture manufacturers close by, today the Passage du Cheval Blanc comprises a labyrinth of individual passageways and courtyards housing small businesses from the Maison Lucien Gau, specialising in the creation, conservation and restoration of lighting and bronze art objects, to architects’ offices and design studios as well as the studios of the radio station Oui FM.


Maison Lucien Gau

Walking from Place de la Bastille through the seventeenth century archway into the Passage du Cheval Blanc the atmosphere changes: the cacophony of Place de la Bastille gradually fades giving way to the indigenous sounds of the passage itself and a calming quietness.


Sounds inside the Passage du Cheval Blanc:


A distinguishing feature of the Passage du Cheval Blanc is that each of the interior passageways is named after a month of the year from January to June.








April – It’s not actually a passageway but a staircase





The sound piece above is my soundwalk from January to June and back to January again.

I have long held the view that constant, aggressive and unwelcome sounds are just as polluting and damaging to our health as the other sources that pollute our atmosphere with a plethora of toxic emissions. Walking through the Passage du Cheval Blanc, I couldn’t help thinking about how the mainly young, creative people who work here must profit from the absence of aggressive, unwelcome sounds.



Journée sans Voitures 2016

FOR A FEW HOURS in March 2015 Paris became the most polluted city in the world. Excessive vehicle emissions combined with sunshine, a drop in temperature and an absence of wind to disperse the pollutants caused a stagnant cover of warm air to settle over Paris resulting in a toxic haze that enveloped the city.

In response, the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, instigated the first Journée sans Voitures, a car-free day. On 27th September 2015, about a third of the city was designated a traffic-free zone save for taxis, buses and emergency vehicles.


The first Journée sans Voitures was a success. Airparif, an air quality monitoring network in the Île-de-France, reported that nitrogen dioxide levels dropped by up to 40% in some parts of Paris and Bruitparif, a noise monitoring network, reported that sound levels fell by half in the city centre.

Yesterday, the Journée sans Voitures was repeated, this time covering a wider area with some 400 miles of the city’s streets being designated a traffic-free zone.


As a professional listener to Paris and an archivist of the city’s soundscapes, the prospect of listening to and recording the city’s sounds without the constant wave of traffic was too good to pass up.

Last year I captured the sounds of the Journée sans Voitures from Place Colette close to the Comédie-Française, the Palais-Royal and le Conseil d’État.

This year I decided to go to three places where I’ve recorded many times before, each of which takes on a completely different hue without a blanket of traffic noise.

My first stop was the Jardin des Tuileries.


For years I’ve been trying to record the sound of the wildlife around the Grand Bassin in the Jardin des Tuileries without traffic noise in the background. On Sunday I had my chance.

Journée sans Voitures – Jardin des Tuileries – Grand Bassin:


My second port of call was a garden whose sounds I have never managed to record successfully because of the overpowering sounds of the surrounding traffic.

The Jardin de la Nouvelle France is a small, English style garden situated at the junction of the Avenue Franklin D Roosevelt and the Cours la Reine in the 8th arrondissement.

The garden is named after Nouvelle France, a North American French colony and one-time vice-royalty of the Kingdom of France. With Québec as its capital, the colony existed from 1534 to 1763.

The garden winds down to below street level and at the bottom is a small waterfall and a pond. Without the traffic above, the sound of the waterfall takes centre stage.


Journée sans Voitures – Jardin de la Nouvelle France:


From the Jardin de la Nouvelle France it was just a short walk to my final destination, the Champs Elysées which, aside from the upmarket emporia lining both sides is, on a normal day, little more than an eight lane racetrack with mind-bending noise pollution to match.

On Sunday there was no traffic, the Champs Elysées was reserved for pedestrians and cyclists and a much calmer sound tapestry prevailed.


Journée sans Voitures – Champs Elysées:


Not only has the Mayor of Paris championed the city’s annual Journée sans Voitures, she has also backed a regular Paris Respire (Paris Breathes) day on the first Sunday of the month, with traffic cleared from the Champs Elysées and a number of surrounding streets.

And today it has been announced that le Conseil de Paris has approved the Mayor’s proposal to permanently close a 3.3 km stretch of la voie Georges-Pompidou on the Right Bank of la Seine to traffic and make it accessible only to pedestrians and cyclists.

Anne Hidalgo has called it a “décision historique, la fin d’une autoroute urbaine à Paris et la reconquête de la Seine.

The proposal is not universally popular. The Left and the Ecologists on the City Council support the scheme but the Right are opposed to it.

Some argue that the Journée sans Voitures, Paris Respire, removing traffic from part of the banks of the Seine and other schemes to reduce airborne pollution are political stunts and have little tangible effect. I disagree.

Airborne pollution, whether from vehicle emissions or from noise, is a plague that affects us all. Paris may be taking small steps to alleviate the problem but in my view they are steps in the right direction.




A New Parisian Bus And New Sounds

MY SOUND PRACTICE here in Paris is centred around recording the contemporary sound tapestry of the city – the sounds Parisians hear as they go about their daily lives but seldom stop to listen to.

I’m particularly interested in how the Parisian sound tapestry changes over time and, over the years, I’ve recorded Parisian sounds that no longer exist, sounds that are on the verge of extinction as well as some completely new sounds that have appeared across the city.

Developments in public transport are a prime source for capturing the changing urban soundscape. While the French economy may be lacklustre at the moment France continues to invest heavily in public transport and this investment not only changes the visual landscape, it also changes the sound landscape.

In Paris over recent years we’ve seen old rolling stock retired and new trains introduced on the Paris Métro system, new stations have opened as part of the programme to extend the Métro network into the suburbs and we’ve seen a significant expansion of the tramway network around the periphery of the city and out into the suburbs.

The considerable investment being poured into public transport is designed to improve and extend the transportation system not only for the convenience and comfort of existing passengers but also to make the system more attractive for new passengers. It is hoped that the continuing improvements to the public transport system will encourage more car users to convert to public transport and thus reduce the vehicular emissions that often smother the city.

Although the investment in the Métro and tram network is to be welcomed, 1.1 billion people still use Parisian buses each year and the 4,500 buses in circulation are a worrying source of polluting emissions.


A diesel engine Parisian bus

Have a listen to this sound:

It’s the sound of a diesel engine Paris bus waiting at traffic lights. It’s an iconic Parisian sound, but it’s a sound that is now on the verge of extinction.


Image via RATP

Bus 2025 is the plan by RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens), the state-owned authority responsible for most of the public transport in Paris and the surrounding Île-de-France region, to eliminate diesel engine buses completely and roll out a new fleet of electric and biogas buses in Paris and the Ile-de-France region, thus meeting the target set out in the Île-de-France urban transport plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption per passenger/km by 20% by 2025.

RATP are not only investing in new electric and biogas buses (80% electric and 20% biogas by 2025) but also in new infrastructure at the bus depots to handle the new technology.

The change from diesel to the new electric and biogas buses cannot be made overnight so there is a transitional phase, which has already begun with the purchase and deployment of some hybrid buses. This will allow RATP to test the new technology in operating conditions and to plan the infrastructure changes required.


A new Iveco Hybrid bus

Since April this year, a fleet of hybrid Urbanway Citybuses purchased from Iveco, one of several suppliers selected by RATP for the transitional phase, have been plying the 82 bus route that passes by the end of my little street so I’ve had the opportunity to experience what these buses are like.


At first glance the hybrid buses look little different from the former diesel engine buses, save for the white bulge protruding from the top of the bus and the new upholstery in the interior.


But ‘under the hood’ the difference is dramatic.

The traction drive on the hybrid bus uses a downsized fuel-effective Euro VI engine with Hi-eSCR exhaust gas after-treatment technology, coupled with an electric-generator engine.

When the bus is decelerating and reaches a speed of 20 km/h, the bus engine cuts out, the batteries take over and the electric-generator kicks in.

The energy accumulated during deceleration is recovered and stored in new generation lithium-ion batteries; this energy is then restored during acceleration. When the bus accelerates and reaches a speed of 20 km/h, the engine takes over.

The elimination of a gearbox results in a smoother drive and jolt-free acceleration.

The Urbanway Citybus has an ‘Arrive & Go’ function, which ensures 100% electric silent arrivals and departures at bus stops, with no pollution or vibrations thus benefiting passengers, the driver and those outside the bus.

Iveco claim that this hybrid technology decreases CO2 emissions and fuel consumption by between 25 and 35%. Using 30% less fuel is equivalent to a reduction of over 25 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per vehicle per year, which represents more than twice the weight of the vehicle.


Iveco’s claim of reduced CO2 emissions and fuel consumption for the hybrid bus is impressive but as a professional listener to Paris I was even more impressed with the dramatic reduction in noise pollution. The reduction in CO2 emissions and fuel consumption is something we can read about but the reduction in the noise emissions is something we can experience at first hand simply by standing beside or by boarding one of these buses.

I hope RATP will carry out some objective measurements of the reduction in the noise level and then broadcast the results alongside the reduction in CO2 emissions and fuel consumption – it’s something worth making a lot of noise about!

Returning from a recording assignment the other day, I recorded a 40-minute journey on the hybrid bus along the 82 bus route from the Jardin du Luxembourg to the bus stop at the end of my little street; a journey from the heart of the Latin Quarter to the west of Paris taking in the Hôtel des Invalides, the École Militaire, the Champs de Mars, the Tour Eiffel and the Palais des Congrès.


Departure from the Jardin du Luxembourg

Sounds of the new hybrid 82 bus:

Sitting on the bus listening to the engine was impressive since the engine is quieter than the usual diesel engine on a Parisian bus. But listening to the complete absence of engine noise when the bus stopped at a junction, or at traffic lights, or at a bus stop was a strange experience. From time to time I found fellow passengers looking quizzically as though the bus had perhaps broken down.

As a passenger, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between the sound of the downsized engine and the electric-generator so I can’t say for certain, but my impression was that the engine on this bus was used for perhaps less than half the journey. I can though say for certain that for most of the journey the sounds of the traffic outside the bus were louder than the sounds on the inside.

An interesting additional sound added to this bus comes from a loudspeaker inside the bus positioned over the front door. On Paris buses passengers enter by the door at the front and leave by the doors in the centre, so when the front door on this bus opens, a voice announces the direction in which the bus is travelling – in this case, “Neuilly – Hôpital American”, that being the last stop on the route. It’s a small, but useful addition since it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve got on an unfamiliar bus and set off in the wrong direction!

Given the importance that RATP attach to the sound architecture of the public transport system, it goes without saying that all the announcements on this bus are made by a real human voice rather than a computerised voice.

Even if you don’t managed to navigate the whole of this recording, I’m sure you will still get a sense of quiet where quiet is not usually found. And it’s certainly worth comparing the sounds of this journey with the sounds of the full-blown diesel engine bus waiting at the traffic lights earlier in this post.


Arrival at home

As a professional listener to Paris and an archivist of the city’s contemporary soundscape I found the sounds of the Iveco hybrid bus plying the 82 bus route not only interesting but also valuable. The sounds are a vision of the future but they are also transitory sounds – they weren’t here yesterday and they won’t be here tomorrow. They represent a specific moment in the history of the city. Once the diesel engine buses are eliminated and the all-electric and biogas buses become common currency, the hybrid buses and their sounds will disappear from the Parisian soundscape forever – but they will live on in my Paris Soundscapes Archive.

Although the hybrid buses represent a transitional phase, an all-electric bus route has already begun operating in Paris. The 341 bus route from Place Charles-de-Gaulle to Porte de Clignancourt saw the first all-electric bus begin operating in May this year. In all, 20 all-electric buses will operate this route. The buses have a range of 180 km and the batteries are recharged at night to avoid overloading the electrical supply system.

And finally, in case you think the significant reduction, and sometimes the absence, of noise in an all-electric or a hybrid bus makes for a soulless journey, be reassured. Riding over the intermittent stretches of Parisian pavé remains the same bone-shattering experience that it’s always been!


The sharp-eyed reader will notice that I left the Jardin du Luxembourg on an 82 bus numbered ‘6005’ but the picture of my arrival at home shows an 82 bus numbered ‘6002’. Well spotted! The explanation is that I did complete the journey on ‘6005’ but it moved off before I could take a picture of it after I alighted. So to capture the shot I waited for the next bus to come along, which was ‘6002’.


The 82 Bus Route


Paris Journée sans Voitures

CAN YOU IMAGINE a city without traffic? Well, in Paris last Sunday we had a glimpse of what such a city might look and sound like.

Place Colette

In August 2014, an organisation called Paris sans Voitures, a citizen collective made up of scientists and high-profile individuals, residents of all ages, professionals, activists and dreamers, put forward a proposal to the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, to reclaim Paris and liberate the streets. Their vision was for a car-free day; a day when private vehicles would be banned in Paris and public transport would be free.

Anne Hidalgo was impressed but the Paris police were more difficult to convince. Nevertheless, a decision was reached on 5th March this year that for one day Paris would experience ‘une journée sans voiture’ – a car free day.

The Mayor was not able to persuade the police that the car free zone should extend across the entire city so an accommodation was reached.


Click to enlarge

On Sunday 27th September, between 1100 and 1800, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th arrondissements – the heart of the city – were car free zones. Several areas away from the centre, including part of the quai on the Left Bank, most of the Champs-Élysées, the Bois de Boulogne, the Bois de Vincennes and the tourist area of Montmartre were also to be car free.

There were exceptions – buses, taxis and emergency vehicles were allowed.

I spend a large part of my life recording the street sounds of Paris and the sound of traffic is my constant companion so this ‘Journée Sans Voitures’ was an opportunity for me to capture an unusual sound tapestry of the city, one without the weft of constant traffic.

Avenue de l’Opéra

L’Avenue de l’Opéra on Sunday afternoon

On Sunday afternoon I walked along the Avenue de l’Opéra from Place de l’Opéra to Place Colette and, apart from occasional buses and taxis, the restriction on other motor vehicles seemed for the most part to be effective.

Place Colette

I chose to record the sounds of the Journée Sans Voitures from Place Colette, which stretches from la Comédie-Française théâtre to the Palais-Royal and le Conseil d’État.

I thought it would be particularly interesting to contrast the sounds in Place Colette on this unique day to those found in the same place on a normal working day.

Place Colette

Place Colette on a normal working day

Sounds in Place Colette on a normal working day:

On a normal working day Place Colette is a space shared between Parisians going about their daily business and tourists passing through. The sounds of passing traffic pervade the air all the time.

Place Colette

Place Colette: Journée sans Voitures

Sounds in Place Colette – ‘Journée Sans Voitures’:

On Sunday in Place Colette there were Parisians and tourists but the sound tapestry was very different. The absence of traffic highlighted sounds that are always there but seldom heard, the rustle of the leaves in the trees for example. The sounds of the people reclaiming the city took centre stage.

When you listen to these sounds, remember that they were recorded in exactly the same place as the working day sounds above.

Place Colette

One might conclude that the Journée sans Voitures was either an experiment worth trying or simply a wheeze by the city authorities to provide a late summer’s fun day out. But it’s worth remembering that for a few hours in March this year Paris gained the unwelcome accolade of being the most polluted city in the world.

Excessive vehicle emissions were at the root of the problem. These emissions, combined with sunshine, a drop in temperature and an absence of wind to disperse the pollutants, caused a stagnant cover of warm air to settle over Paris. A toxic haze enveloped the city obscuring some of its most well known landmarks. Schools were instructed to keep children in classrooms and limit sports activities and health warnings were issued to the elderly to avoid even moderate exercise.

Paris usually enjoys relatively clean air for a city its size so the bad press stung the city authorities.

Is it too fanciful to suggest that the Journée sans Voitures might be a signpost to the future – cities without noxious vehicle emissions, cleaner air and a much less polluted sonic environment?

Place Colette


The Passage l’Homme and its Sounds

THE AREA TO THE EAST of Bastille, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, was traditionally a working class neighbourhood with a focus on craft industries. Its proximity to the Seine with its plentiful supply of wood saw the area develop into an important centre for the furniture industry, which it still is today.

Many of the skilled craftsmen didn’t work in the main streets preferring instead to set up their workshops in the plethora of small, cobblestone, passageways leading off the main thoroughfares. Many of these passageways survive today and some still accommodate skilled craftsmen.

Passage de l’Homme

A set of double doors at N°26 rue de Charonne lead into one of these surviving passageways, the Passage l’Homme.

Passage de l’Homme

Stretching for 122 metres the Passage l’Homme is lined with ateliers on the ground floor with apartments above. In prime position close to the entrance is an amazing toyshop.

Passage de l’Homme

Further along the passage is the atelier of Alain Hollard whose family firm was established here over a hundred years ago. He specialises in a traditional craft long associated with this part of Paris, Vernissage au Tampon, known in English as French polishing.

Passage de l’Homme

For me, the most striking thing about the Passage l’Homme is not the sights, delightful though they are, but the sounds.

Sounds in the Passage l’Homme:

Sandwiched between rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, rue de Charonne and l’avenue Ledru-Rollin the Passage l’Homme is surrounded on all sides by busy streets awash with heavy traffic and yet deep inside the passage a curious calm prevails. Such sounds as there are represent life being lived in the street uncluttered for the most part by noise pollution and so each sound seems to take on an extra significance.

Just as Eugène Atget would have set up his large-format wooden bellows camera to photograph this place a hundred years ago, I set up my microphones half way along the passage and with a much longer exposure time than Atget would have used I pressed ‘record’ and walked away leaving the microphones to capture the scene.

Occasional birdsong, the clatter of lunchtime crockery, anonymous footsteps and distant conversation paint the canvas upon which the more prominent sounds can shine. A young lady collects a large sheet of artwork from the graphic designer’s office and rolls it up as she leaves, doors open and close, two French middle-aged men busily clicking their cameras walk by, the apartment gardien emerges and sits on a step taking a phone call, someone whistles, a young child in a buggy passes by proclaiming something obviously very important to the world and Monsieur Hollard returns from his lunch, unlocks the door to his atelier and goes inside to continue with his vernis au tampon.

Passage de l’Homme

In the bustling streets of Paris noise pollution is a constant companion and quiet places are hard to find. That’s why I find it so refreshing to visit the Passage l’Homme. For sure, it’s an interesting place to see but it’s so much more interesting to listen to. In this verdant corner of the city the noise pollution subsides and the ordinary sounds of everyday life take centre-stage. Like a fine wine these sounds deserve to be savoured and enjoyed.

Passage de l’Homme

Passage de l’Homme

Passage de l’Homme

Passage de l’Homme

Passage de l’Homme


The Canal Saint-Denis and its Sounds – Part 2

IN THE FIRST PART of my exploration of the Canal Saint-Denis I followed the canal from its starting point at the Canal de l’Ourcq in the Parc de la Villette to the end of the Quai de la Gironde in the 19th arrondissement.

In this second part, I’m going to leave the Paris city limits and follow the canal as far as the swing bridge, the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis, at Aubervilliers in la Plaine Saint-Denis .


The green arrow shows my route from the end of the Quai de la Gironde to the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis. The horizontal line shows the Paris city limits.

Canal Saint-Denis

Tram stop, Canal Saint-Denis, on Tram Line 3b at the end of the Quai de la Gironde

To continue walking along the canal it’s necessary to cross the bridge at the end of the Quai de la Gironde, the Pont MacDonald, and walk down to the canal on the opposite side. But before I did that I wanted to take a short detour.

Before crossing the bridge, I crossed the road by the tram stop and walked along the canal as far as the Boulevard Périphérique, which is as far as you can go on this side of the canal. There I found the newly opened first forest planted within the city of Paris.

Canal Saint-Martin

Occupying a strip of land between office buildings on one side and the Boulevard Périphérique on the other it’s perhaps a little early to call it a forest but these young saplings are expected to grow into something much more substantial over the next fifteen years or so.

Canal Saint-Martin

This new urban forest is intended in part to shield the neighbourhood from the noise pollution generated by the constant ribbon of traffic passing by on the Périphérique.

Canal Saint-Martin

The Boulevard Périphérique lies directly above and behind these saplings beyond the wall and the lamppost.

It seems that the Paris city authorities are not expecting the root cause of the noise pollution problem, excessive traffic, to reduce any time soon.

Canal Saint-Denis

Having had a look at this new urban forest I walked back to the Pont MacDonald, crossed over and went down the steps to the canal towpath just in time to catch this barge passing under the bridge.

This type of barge is called a ‘pusher’ and it’s quite common to see them on the Canal de l’Ourcq, the Canal Saint-Denis and, of course, on la Seine. They comprise a pusher tug and barge combination combining the operational capabilities of a non-propelled split hopper barge together with the capabilities of a pusher tug. This one was empty but I was to meet it again on my walk along the canal, this time heading in the opposite direction when it was full of sand.

Canal Saint-Denis

Pausing under the Boulevard Périphérique to record some sounds (of which more later) I happened upon this sign. The towpath along the Canal Saint-Denis forms part of l’Avenue Verte, the 406 km cycle route stretching from Paris to London, a good part of which follows special traffic-free greenways.

On the opposite side of the canal just beyond the Périphérique I came upon the shopping complex Le Millénaire which you can get to by road but it’s also served by a fleet of electric powered ferries, or navettes fluvials, which you can see and hear in Part 1 of my exploration of this canal.

Canal Saint-Martin

On my side of the canal I discovered a wall covered in colourful graffiti.

Canal Saint-Martin

At the end of the wall I crossed the Paris city limits into the commune of Aubervilliers and the second lock on the canal, l’Écluse des Quatre Chemins.

Canal Saint-Denis

Lock N° 2, l’Écluse des Quatre Chemins

Canal Saint-Denis

This lock, like all the locks on the canal, is a dual-chamber lock remotely controlled from Lock N°1, l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre, at the head of the canal.

Canal Saint-Denis

The quay leading from l’Écluse des Quatre Chemins

After leaving the Paris city limits, the Canal Saint-Denis crosses the western edge of Aubervilliers from south to north before reaching Saint-Denis.

Originally a hamlet called Notre-Dame-des-Vertus, the first reference to Aubervilliers comes in the mid-eleventh century when it was known as Albertivillare. These names live on today with the thirteenth-century church still called the Église Notre-Dame-des-Vertus, the fourth lock on the canal is called l’Écluse des Vertus and the residents of Aubervilliers are still known as Albertivillariens or Albertivillariennes.

Up until the early nineteenth-century Aubervilliers’ claims to fame were the miracles that were supposed to have happened in the parish in the Middle Ages and the quality of its vegetables, notably cabbages and onions, that were much sought after in the Parisian markets.

Once totally dependent upon the large, fertile, agricultural plain on which it stood, the nineteenth-century marked a turning point for Aubervilliers. The years following the arrival of the Canal Saint-Denis in 1821 and the removal of the barrières d’octroi (the tax barriers) in 1860 saw a medieval peasant village transformed into an industrial city with much of the industry centred along the canal.

Canal Saint-Denis

Lock N° 3, l’Écluse d’Aubervilliers

Among the industries that sprang up were factories manufacturing soap, sulphuric acid, matches (the former match factory is now preserved as an historic monument), glass, tripe, chemicals (the buildings of La Pharmacie Centrale de France still remain), and ceramic, plaster and cork tiles.

All this changed the face of Aubervilliers. At the end of the 19th century people from Belgium, Lorraine, Alsace, Brittany, Spain, and Italy arrived in successive waves seeking work in these new industries. The Quatre-Chemins district, which straddles the boundary of Aubervilliers and Pantin, was pejoratively nicknamed La Petite Prusse (Little Prussia) due to the many immigrants coming to work in the Saint-Gobain glassworks established in 1866 next to the canal.

Canal Saint-Denis

Just as the industrial revolution changed the face of Aubervilliers, so has its de-industrialisation.

Today, the large manufacturing industries have gone to be replaced by a network of service industries including the Rhodia and Saint-Gobain research laboratories, Orange S.A., Documentation Française (housed in the former match factory), some workshops of the Paris Métro and a large RATP bus depot. New areas have developed in fields such as telecommunications, audiovisual and cinema (Euromédia, Studios d’Aubervilliers, Ciné-Lumières), and textiles and fashion (Kookai, Redskins, Hugo Boss, Afflelou, etc.). Wholesale activities have also become a strong sector with more than 300 establishments concentrated around the Port of Aubervilliers importing cheap manufactured goods (textiles, watches, toys, etc.), mainly from China, which are distributed throughout France.

But, despite the rise of these service industries, Aubervilliers still suffers the blight of de-industrialisation since most of the people employed by these industries don’t live in the commune. With a population of over 70,000, around 40% of whom are immigrants now mainly from Africa, Aubervilliers is one of the poorest municipalities around Paris.

Canal Saint-Denis

Today, it’s only the depots for cement, concrete and aggregates for use in the building industry that line this part of the Canal Saint-Denis.

Canal Saint-Denis

Lock N° 4,  l’Écluse des Vertus


The railway bridge crossing the canal next to l’Écluse des Vertus

So, I’d now walked from the start of the Canal Saint-Denis in the Parc de Villette (see The Canal Saint-Denis and its Sounds – Part 1), I’d explored four of the locks on the canal, walked under six road bridges, one footbridge and one railway bridge and I’d covered a little over half the length of the canal. Now I’d come to a bridge that I couldn’t walk under, the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis, the fascinating swing bridge.

Canal Saint-Denis

I was lucky enough to arrive as a barge was waiting to pass through and so I was able to watch the bridge in action.

Canal Saint-Denis

The barge waited on the canal until a signal from the control room at Lock N°1, l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre, at the head of the canal set the bridge in motion. Very sedately it swung open until it was completely aligned with the opposite bank allowing the barge to pass.

Once the barge was clear, another signal set the bridge in motion once again and it began its return journey.

Canal Saint-Denis

I took up a prime position to record the sounds as the bridge swung gently back into place.

Canal Saint-Denis

A set of hydraulic bars acted as guides to enable the bridge to slot into position.

Canal Saint-Denis

Once returned to its place, the bridge was still higher than the adjoining roadway and so with a hydraulic driven clatter it was lowered into its final position to make a seamless connection with the road.

Canal Saint-Denis

Once the bridge was locked into place, the gates were opened and the traffic began to pass.

Canal Saint-Denis

I found all this fascinating not only to see from such close range but also to listen to, which brings me neatly onto my sound portrait of this stretch of the Canal Saint-Denis.

The Canal Saint-Denis from the Quai de la Gironde to the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis – A Sound Portrait.

This sound portrait begins at the Pont MacDonald at the end of the Quai de la Gironde with the sounds of the ‘pusher’ barge passing under the bridge. Then come the curious sounds I recorded under the Boulevard Périphérique, a clattering as traffic passes overhead over a joint in the road. The delicious sounds of the engine of Puebla, a barge berthed at the side of the canal opposite the ready mix concrete works, comes next with the purring sound of the barge’s engine interspersed with the whistling sounds of trucks reversing under the ready mix concrete hoppers. Next are the sounds of a barge manoeuvring into l’Écluse des Vertus accompanied by the sounds of trains crossing the railway bridge overhead.

And then … well, then comes what will undoubtedly be one of my sounds of the year – the sounds of the barge passing and then the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis closing. Capturing sounds like these make all the countless hours I spend walking in and around Paris hunting for sounds worthwhile.

Next time, I will complete my journey along the Canal Saint-Denis from this swing bridge to Lock N° 7, l’Écluse de la Briche, where the canal discharges into la Seine. That will include exploring three more locks, walking under two more road bridges, one of which is absolutely huge, two footbridges and a railway bridge as well as pausing on the way to look at France’s National Stadium, the Stade de France, and the commune of Saint-Denis.

Canal Saint-Denis


Parisian Traffic – A Study in Sound

I AM A CITY DWELLER and so the sound of traffic is my constant companion. In a busy city like Paris there is no escape from it. Day and night the cacophony of traffic pervades the air enveloping one in a cloak of constant noise pollution.

The Mairie de Paris has produced a fascinating map of road traffic noise in the city and I’ve reproduced a page of it below.

Screen shot 2013-10-29 at 2.53.59 PM

If you want to explore the on-line version you can do so by clicking here where you can see the road traffic noise levels in each arrondissement measured in dB(A), an expression of the relative loudness of sounds in air as perceived by the human ear.

Academic studies have also been carried out to try to quantify the amount of traffic noise and it’s effect on our lives. I came across a study recently published in the International Journal of Health Geographics entitled ‘Transportation noise and annoyance related to road traffic in the French RECORD study’ which is worth a read.

Frenc Road Traffic Study

Extract from: ‘Transportation noise and annoyance related to road traffic in the French RECORD study’: International Journal of Health Geographics

Although both the sound map of the traffic noise in Paris and the study from the International Journal of Health Geographics are interesting and certainly help to quantify the problem I’m not going to dwell on them here. Instead, I want to focus on traffic noise from my perspective as a sound recordist specialising in recording urban soundscapes and particularly the urban soundscape of Paris.

The conventional wisdom is that traffic noise is the enemy of the field recordist and I can attest to that. I’ve lost count of the number of recordings I’ve made that have been blighted by traffic noise. Unlike my wildlife sound recording friends who will often get up at an unearthly hour and travel for miles to find remote places free from the sound of traffic to hunt their quarry I don’t have that possibility. The sounds I hunt for are much closer to home, in the heart of the city and in the case of Paris, a city that is constantly awash with traffic.


Over the years I’ve wrestled with the problem of recording the Parisian soundscape while, if not eliminating, then minimising the effect of unwanted traffic noise but there has always been a problem in the back of my mind. Traffic noise IS part of the Parisian soundscape and while it might not always be an attractive part, it is an integral part of the warp and weft of the city’s sound tapestry.

So I’ve decided to stand this problem on its head and rather than seeking to eliminate or minimise traffic noise I’ve decided to feature it – but this of course requires a change in the way we think about traffic noise.

For me, noise is sound in the wrong place and usually in the wrong quantity. But what if we think not of traffic noise but of traffic sounds. What if we think less about traffic as noise pollution and more in terms of traffic as a sound tapestry in its own right. True, it won’t eliminate traffic as a major source of noise pollution blighting our environment but it might help us to come to terms with it a little better and it might even help us to find something engaging rather than something completely hostile. It might even become, if not a friend, then perhaps less of an enemy.


For the last few months I’ve been recording the sounds rather than the noise of traffic. I’ve been to the traffic hotspots in Paris such as the Champs Elysées, rue de Rivoli, Place de Clichy, Place de la Bastille, Place de la Chapelle as well as to other places less congested. I eschewed the Périphérique, the wall of traffic that surrounds Paris, on the basis that I wanted to record traffic that was actually moving which the traffic there seldom seems to do.

I don’t have a car and so I don’t contribute to the noise pollution caused by traffic – although I do use public transport extensively so maybe I do to some extent – but nevertheless, I tried to listen to the sounds of the traffic dispassionately, as a sound recordist recording yet another urban soundscape.

Parisian Traffic – A Study in Sound:

In this sound piece I’ve stitched together some of the traffic sounds that I’ve recorded. The piece begins with the cacophony of traffic, the dominating, harsh, discordant mixture of sounds that we think of as traffic noise. As the piece develops the sounds of the traffic become less harsh and more distinctive as individual vehicles emerge from the crowd and reclaim their identity. The sounds cease to shout at us and begin to speak in a clearer voice. Finally, pedestrians reclaim the streets although not entirely devoid of traffic but at least sharing them more equitably.

As someone who is passionate about sound I abhor the increasing noise pollution that blights our lives as much as anyone. Traffic noise makes up a large part of that noise pollution and it’s not going to disappear any time soon. At best it can be a nuisance and at worst it can be unbearable.

As a sound recordist capturing the Parisian soundscape I loathe the city’s incessant traffic noise but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t at least try to tease out some of its few redeeming features and embrace its more captivating sounds.



The Sounds of Paris Obscura Day

HAVING HAD A TOUR of the blogging world earlier today, I see that much has been written about the success of the Paris Obscura Day which took place last Saturday and I expect that much more will be written in the days to come.  I would like to add my contribution.

Thanks and congratulations to Adam, Invisible Paris, not only for conceiving the idea but also for masterminding the organisation and making the day such a success. The idea to use the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale as the theme for the day was inspired.

My contribution to the day was to record the sounds of the garden and then to reproduce them at the evening event in Dorothy’s Gallery.

Sounds Inside the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale:

To record the sounds I made four trips to the garden, which is in a remote corner of the Bois de Vincennes, so I got to know it rather well. It’s far enough away from Paris city centre to have a countryside feel to it but not far enough away to escape the noise pollution we would all like to escape from.

The natural sounds of the garden – the birds, the occasional barking dog, the wind brushing the trees and the water sit cheek by jowl with the man-made sounds – traffic, aircraft passing overhead, workmen, bicycle riders and joggers. Like it or not, the sounds of the garden are what they are and what they have always been– a mélange of natural and man-made sounds.

The natural and man-made sounds of the garden:

This place may be decaying but sonically it’s far from dead.

And another place that is far from dead is Dorothy’s Gallery where the guests gathered on Saturday evening. This too provided a unique sonic tapestry.

A church bell recorded from Dorothy’s Gallery:

A surprising sound to be found in a gallery perhaps but there it was, unheard by the guests, but captured nevertheless.

And something else captured during the evening was this message from the caterers, Emperor Norton of Paris, whose quirky food take on the evening was a delight.

As far as I know, only one book has been written about the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale but there are lots of photographs providing an historical record of the place. To my knowledge, there is no record of the historical sounds of the garden. I have at least been able to capture its early twenty-first century soundscape which, alongside the photographs taken by Shane Lynam, may be of value to future historians. Let’s hope so.


More Noise Pollution Close to Home

A MICROPHONE PLACED ON my apartment balcony reveals much about everyday life in Paris.

Paris – this wonderful city, the city of light, the most visited city in the world, a city full of beautiful secrets and a city drenched in wonderful sounds – but also a city where everyday life goes on relentlessly.

Yesterday morning, in my neck of the woods, the white van men appeared again and my heart sank at the prospect of the day ahead.

A shower, breakfast and then it started – noise, noise, relentless noise.

The white van men were revealed to be tree pruners – pruning the trees in the garden surrounding my apartment building.  A necessary job that needs to be done – but at what cost?

The sound of the pruning was bearable but the sound of the pruned debris disposal was quite a different matter.

The Relentless Noise of Pruned Debris Disposal:

The men had brought a machine that chews tree branches – feeding the pruned branches in at one end and spewing out sawdust at the other. A very efficient machine no doubt but with a noise exhaust level that exceeds that of a Jumbo jet taking off.

My apartment is pretty well soundproofed but that did not stop the noise invasion. The noise invaded my space and it continued relentlessly all morning.

There was a break at lunchtime but then it started again. I was working from home, or at least trying to, but the noise was so pervasive that I gave up and moved off, Hemingway like, to a café close by where I could work in relative peace.

When I came back home the white vans had gone. The trees looked better for their serious haircut – but what price did we pay for this necessary job?

Sound is important to me – and the abuse of sound annoys me. The white van men were just doing their job so I don’t blame them, but the product of their labour was not just more healthy trees, it was to invade the atmosphere with noise pollution in the extreme.

We protest vociferously about whale hunting, fur coats, animal rights, student fees, global warming and a host of other things … but maybe we should make more noise about noise pollution!