As our cities hurtle through overlapping crises of climate, biodiversity, equality and public health, this moment presents a paradox. On the one hand, neoliberal momentum is accelerating towards ever-more atomised, precarious and profit-oriented forms of urban living. On the other, as the Care Collective identify, a unique opportunity for radical change is emerging. Their vision of “universal care” – one where “we are all jointly responsible for hands-on care work, as well as engaging with and caring about the flourishing of other people and the planet”1The Care Collective, The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence (London: Verso, 2020), 96. – is both simple and radical.
The collective work of sketching out this vision and mapping routes towards it, particularly in relation to urban planning, is primarily expressed in the language of the visual. The dominance of the visual, in relation not only to the design of the built environment but also to discourses of future imaginaries, means that the potential of the sonic can be (to demonstrate our ocularcentric lexicon) “overlooked” or “disregarded.” The answer is not to disengage from the visual paradigm, but to tune into the auditory one in parallel and to recognise its affordances. As Brandon LaBelle writes, “if the gaze performs to often define limits, to pinpoint those who may cross lines or borders, (…) the invisible quality of sounding events or subjects may afford opportunities for not only entering spaces – to appear – but for finding solidarities within the dark, or upon peripheries of appearance.”2Brandon LaBelle, Sonic Agency (London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018), 32.
How can care become material through sound in the urban environment, and how can we tune in to it? The answer to this question will of course differ from place to place and listener to listener, but some ideas can be found in Sweden’s third city, Malmö, a city taking steps to nurture its sonic imagination, not least through the creation of a “cultural-industrial sound zone.” This article invites you to consider how attentive listening can take us beyond binary conceptualisations of silence vs noise; how nurturing multilingual soundscapes can constitute a form of care; and how connection through sound and movement might contribute to a sense of safety in the caring city. Field notes from listening to the city have been made into short “sonic sketches” that punctuate the text and illustrate the central proposition that sound constitutes a vital locus in the collective project of imagining into existence cities and communities that are contoured around care, culture and connection.
Crime city or culture of care?
Malmö is as sonically diverse as it is demographically. Over time it has been soundtracked by the overlapping rhythms and melodies of industrial production, shipbuilding and construction; the whirr of bicycle wheels and the wheeze of bus doors; the whistle of salt winds gusting between buildings and tree branches; voices raised in 150 languages, in conversation, protest and song; and music from car stereos, rehearsal studios, gig venues and street festivals. In the Nordic public imagination, however, this post-industrial city has for decades now had a tarnished reputation, carrying associations with criminal activity, gang violence and social segregation. In a city where one third of the residents were born in countries other than Sweden, socioeconomic segregation overlaps to some degree with ethnic segregation, such that simplistic interpretations of the city’s social issues from politicians, media and think-tanks mobilise narratives of criminality and gang violence to justify hostile policymaking.
Against these narratives of intercultural tension, segregation and difference – some real and some imagined in bursts of media sensationalism or political campaigning – this is a city in a constant process of self-reinvention. In recent years, a series of ground-breaking initiatives have created a broad framework of possibility for engaged citizens and communities to express care in multiple ways. The Malmö Commitment to sustainable, inclusive and equitable urban development has been signed by cities around the world. The Öppna Malmö (Open Malmö) initiative encompasses a vibrant programme of activities, exhibitions and events, inviting residents to take pride in the city’s many cultures, languages and backgrounds. Kul i Malmö (Fun in Malmö) is a year-round programme of cultural, leisure and sporting activities for all ages, which is entirely free and distributed across the city to encourage community integration. Malmöfestivalen (the Malmö Festival) is a nine-day array of gigs and other cultural events in public squares, also free and open to all. Across these multiple initiatives, and many more at a small-scale level, there is an emerging sense of shared civic values that include equity, access, culture and care.
The cultural-industrial sound zone
One of the most innovative developments in the city’s regeneration is the introduction of a kulturljudzon (KLZ) – a cultural-industrial sound zone – in the Sofielund area in 2021. In recent years, this industrial quarter has become a thriving hub for new grassroots developments in culture, leisure and community engagement, which co-exist alongside established industries. As the city expands outwards and upwards, this once-peripheral location has become more central in relative terms, and the establishment of the KLZ provides a focused and protected area for noisy activities. This process of sonic re-invention, the only one of its kind in Sweden, has been led by local community members in collaboration with municipal authorities for planning, culture, leisure and environment.
Permitting noise levels of up to 85 dBA at source, this zone is designed to create conditions for industry, culture and leisure to develop a symbiotic sonic relationship.3 https://bidmalmo.se/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Pp-6053-Planprogram-samrad-lasversion.pdf (accessed 1 May 2023). Local planning documents ensure the retention of existing distances between the KLZ and the surrounding housing, thus preventing new residential developments in the area, and marking out a space where the bass-heavy sounds from clubs and rehearsal spaces can blend with the hum and hammer of factories and workshops, the clatter of freight lorries and the shouts and cheers spilling out from sports clubs and play parks.
Does this development make Malmö more of a caring city? The act of designating a zone where noisy activities are permitted does not automatically generate more humane, open or mutually respectful conditions. However, the document outlining the creation of the KLZ in Malmö indicates priorities that are not primarily or solely driven by economic concerns, but by a desire to nurture and develop the relational and community-led features of this area, such as its participatory culture, its collaboration between municipal, civil society, cultural and non-profit bodies, and its focus on sustainable urban development led from the bottom up. In this way, this area’s reinvention through sound has become a testing ground for a particular set of values, where the focus of urban regeneration shifts to some degree from the individual earner/consumer towards the collective, and from maximising profit towards maximising wellbeing.
Desirable and undesirable sounds
This enthusiastic introduction to the KLZ might suggest a view that all noise is good noise – and of course it’s not that simple. Increasing attention is being paid to acoustics in urban planning, often in discourses framed in terms of “desirable” and “undesirable” sounds. Acoustic management in urban planning is generally focused on reducing sounds considered undesirable and introducing those considered desirable. Some undesirable sounds, such as the noise pollution caused by heavy traffic or construction work, are easy to identify and generally the primary focus of attention to the sonic in urban planning. But in recent years, undesirable sounds have begun to be actively introduced into urban environments.
The monetisation of public space and the elevation of the act of consumption means that those without the resources or inclination to purchase are framed as a nuisance to be removed. Sounds such as high-pitched noises or repetitive music – the sonic equivalent of hostile architecture like anti-homeless spikes – are most commonly deployed as anti-loitering devices in public spaces, demonstrating what Leslie Kern calls the “stark divide” over “who we believe should have access to public space.”4Leslie Kern, Feminist City (London and New York: Verso, 2020), xii. Some of these deterrents are universally audible, while others use frequencies that specifically target the hearing range of younger people.5See, for example, http://movingsoundtech.com/mosquito-faq (accessed 1 May 2023). In 2018, Deutsche Bahn announced plans to use atonal music to deter unhoused people from sheltering on Berlin’s public rail network — a plan which was rapidly scrapped due to public opposition. Sound is even used to reinforce the toxic hierarchies of racial capitalism on an international level, with the Greek government’s deployment of sound cannons to deter people in flight being a particularly brutal example of the antithesis of sonic care. All over the world, in public imaginations fuelled by populist politics, neoliberal logics and sensationalist media narratives, the people and communities against whom undesirable sounds are mobilised are generally the same people who are constructed as undesirable or what Judith Butler would call “ungrievable bodies.”6Judith Butler, Frames of War (London and New York: Verso, 2016), 22.
What, then, might constitute sounds of care in our urban communities – sounds of welcome, of connection, of hospitality? An obvious challenge in answering this question is the extreme subjectivity of the extent to which particular sounds are experienced as “desirable.” Undesirable sounds, whether a necessary side-effect of urban development, or a deliberately hostile intervention, are to a large degree easily recognised and measured. But how might we imagine or define sounds of care, when each of us finds nurture in such differing frequencies, volume levels and sonic environments over time, from the silent to the symphonic? Rather than being a disadvantage, the fact that there is no clear definition of a “desirable” sound might helpfully shift us away from ideas of universal solutions, towards listening to the fragmentary and multi-faceted sonic life of the cities around us. Indeed, discourses on urban acoustic ecology generally agree that listening is central to meaning-making, and to building consensus across diverse perspectives on what might constitute a good soundscape.7Max Dixon, Urban and Regional Planning: Introducing the Soundscape Approach (Stockholm: City of Stockholm Environment and Health Administration, 2012), 48-51. https://ljudplanering.se/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/designing-soundscape-for-sustainable-urban-development.pdf (accessed 1 May 2023).
Beyond silence vs noise
It’s November, and it’s been cold and dark for a while in Malmö, but the skies have so far only given us rain, no snow. Late on a Friday night, just as the kids have gone to bed, we spot snowflakes captured in the halo of light around the street lamps. We open the door onto the little balcony and listen. This part of the city where we live is already too quiet for me, and the snow seems to add a new hush. Out of nowhere, the sound of a trumpet cuts through the darkness. It starts with a confident blast of melody, before stumbling into some wrong notes and then regaining its stride. The combination of the falter, the lateness of the hour, and the general audacity of trumpeting across a silent street close to midnight, suggests some alcohol may be involved. It takes me a moment to locate the musician, on an upper floor balcony across the street. I later discover the unfamiliar melody to be a traditional children’s song, welcoming the snow and the winter, and urging everyone to bring out their gloves, skis and sledges. More windows and balcony doors open, and when the tune ends as abruptly as it began, we join in spontaneous applause and cheers, emboldened to add our noise and voices to this (to me) welcome rupture in the silence of our street’s soundscape.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, Xochitl Gonzalez reflects on the complex relationship between noise, race, diversity and urban development, coming to the conclusion that “the sound of gentrification is silence.” She deftly traces sites and strategies of silencing in the history of New York, recognising the decades-long trend in the city towards “codifying an elite sonic aesthetic: the systemic elevation of quiet over noise.”8Xochitl Gonzalez, “Why do Rich People love quiet?”, The Atlantic, September 2022) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/09/let-brooklyn-be-loud/670600/ (accessed 1 May 2023). This trend is pervasive and entrenched, not just in New York but in cities all over the world. However, constructing the problem as an intractable and irreconcilable difference between the natural soundscapes of minoritised groups (characterised as noisy, vibrant and inclusive) and soundscapes of gentrification (where silence is unilaterally imposed by people in positions of power and privilege) risks re-inscribing and essentialising difference, and putting solutions out of reach.
Centring care through sound can offer a way past the binary opposition of silence versus noise. Care as an organising principle supports a recognition of the body, a complex system of physical, psychological and relational needs, which are not fixed but change over time. At the same time, attention to sound and listening moves us beyond tidy boundaries and one-dimensional identities, towards the territory of layered voices, echoes, resonances, movement and flux, in ambiguous in-between spaces where “by passing between things and bodies, subjects and objects, sound affords an extensive possibility for contact and conversation.”9Brandon LaBelle, Sonic Agency (London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018), 61.
Bearing in mind the subjectivity of how sound is experienced, it becomes clear that both noise and silence can be heard as care and nurture, or as hostility. One way to respond to this tension is to centre deep listening and dialogue, paying attention to the soundscapes around us, and to others’ responses to those acoustic environments. In Malmö, dialogue with local communities helped identify the KLZ and take steps to protect its acoustic ecology. Here, flexible and tailored approaches to zoning have allowed silence and noise to co-exist in neighbouring areas, in a way that protects and recognises the importance of both. This kind of attention to the unique acoustic ecology of each part of the city can emphasise plurality, fluidity and nuance in the face of over-simplified narratives of segregation and difference.
The number 7 bus swooshes through the seaweed-salty air, drawing to a halt at our stop. The door mechanism exhales, the ticket reader beeps in recognition of my phone’s QR code, and I can sense my children’s silent cringe as I offer the bus driver a cheery “godmorgon.” Standing close to the driver in the morning rush hour, we hear a layered and multilingual soundscape. The driver is playing music which may be of East African origin, sounding to my untrained ear similar to some Eritrean music that a friend once shared with me. Some kids commune around a phone, sharing their favourite TikToks on impossibly loud volumes, laughing and obviously enjoying using the word ‘fuck’ while out of parental earshot. Two women share an animated conversation in Hindi, while two middle-aged men in the priority seating area raise their voices over the general hubbub to dissect the latest football news, their speech marked by the roller-coaster vowel sounds of the Skåne accent.
Controversy was sparked recently in Sweden when a politician expressed outrage at hearing music in Arabic on a bus, demanding restrictions to ensure only “neutral music” on public transport. This intervention is part of a rising tide of hostility to cultural and linguistic expressions that are perceived as “non-Swedish,” amidst growing political polarisation. Hostility to multilingualism as part of the city’s acoustic ecology becomes particularly charged in relation to languages predominantly spoken by people of colour. Languages like Arabic, Turkish or Somali are perceived in certain quarters to pose an existential threat to the Swedish language, in a narrow conceptualisation of language that recognises neither the resource offered by overlapping linguistic repertoires nor the potential richness of fluid approaches like translanguaging,10Li Wei, “Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language,” Applied Linguistics, 39, no. 1 (February 2018): 9–30, https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/amx039 (accessed 1 May 2023). identifying instead with ‘the monolingual imagination’.11David Gramling, The Invention of Monolingualism (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016).
What does care sound like in this contested linguistic soundscape? Which voices and languages are easily audible, and which are considered disruptive or undesirable? In a caring city, which sounds are cared for and how do we care with one another? The main artery running through the KLZ is a street called Norra Grängesbergsgatan, or NGBG. A noise-loving cultural association by the same name has been a driving force in establishing the KLZ, and as well as organising festivals, gigs, comedy nights and film screenings, the NGBG association also runs a regular language café, where long-time Malmö residents and new arrivals can meet over coffee and engage in collaborative and informal approaches to language learning. This low-key gathering takes on greater significance in the broader context of increasingly antagonistic attitudes to speakers of languages other than Swedish. In a caring city, simple acts of mutual curiosity, dialogue and collective sounding hold potential to undermine linguistic hierarchies and strengthen localised solidarity.
Sound, connection and safety
We’re in the heart of the KLZ, sitting at one of six picnic tables on a raised platform, between the car park and the bike racks on Lantmannagatan. We’re still in winter jackets and boots, but for the first time this year, pale rays of sunshine warm our faces. There are waves of sound and movement on all sides of us – bodies, voices, bicycles – as people come and go from the climbing centre, the circus school, the Fritidsbanken sporting equipment library, and the roller derby place, appropriately named ‘Crime City Rollers’. A group at the next table talk in animated tones over generous falafel wraps bursting out of their foil wrappers. The occasional articulated lorry pulls out from the industrial bakery across the road, taking mini cinnamon buns to the world, and somewhere near the bakery a samba drumming group is in full swing. From across the car park streams live music from the rehearsal spaces in the Sofiepark cultural centre. One band is practicing the same distinctive, punchy guitar riff, with bass and drums kicking in halfway through, and it seems like they’re getting better with each repetition.
Constituting an industrial and post-industrial landscape of about four large city blocks, the KLZ is visually distinct from the residential buildings that border it. Looking across a narrow green space from the warehouses, grain silos and car workshops, the built landscape shifts towards red-brick apartment blocks with lamps and plants in the windows. Sonically, however, there is a greater sense of porosity and overlap. While the visual realm can emphasise difference and comparison, sound’s materiality travels, crossing boundaries, interacting, and creating new contact surfaces. We expect this of the urban soundscape – this layering of sound from multiple sources, offering our ears a both/and rather than an either/or. If we were to judge by visual markers alone, parts of the KLZ might be assumed to be an industrial estate in decline, uninviting and inhospitable. Tuning in to the soundscape of this place, however, demonstrates its huge auditory diversity, as the nature of the sounds we encounter here – generated by a multiplicity of ages, activities and cultures – send and reinforce messages about the breadth of people who are welcome in this space, and the potential for finding shared resonances.
Leslie Kern’s Feminist City peels back the layers of cities designed and built by men, taking their own experiences and needs as universal. She outlines how this creates a tangle of interconnected barriers for women in urban space, and sketches a vision of how a city based on care could look – and sound – very different. In a discussion of sound, movement and safety for women and people of marginalised genders, she recognises that prioritising care “is central to radically rethinking what safety means and what justice looks like.”12 Kern, Feminist City, xiii. Rather than hardening the city into exclusionary and overpoliced extensions of the carceral state, she recognises how the contours of care can reconfigure the city. She reflects on how navigating a silent city can be more of a threatening experience than one filled with sound and movement. This resonates with my experience of nocturnal visits to see live music in Malmö’s KLZ, feeling accompanied by noise and movement on solo outings to gigs as a newly-arrived resident of the city.
An invitation to urban listening as self-care and mutual care
So what does a caring city sound like? There are lots of potential answers to this question of course, but clues from the kulturljudzon suggest a city where through mutual listening we learn to hold silence and noise in balance; a city where attention to the sonic brings nuance in the face of polarisation and connection in the face of isolation; and a city where all voices, languages and cultures can be audible. Where mutual curiosity outweighs mutual suspicion, and where everyone can thrive.
Salomé Voegelin theorises sound as an invitation: “sound as a concept invites us into the materiality of things, not to deny the visual but to augment how we might see; and it transgresses the boundaries between the object, the thing looked at, and the space and context of its appreciation, introducing a sense of simultaneity instead of pre-existence, and promoting the reading and experiencing of things as agitational, interventionist, multisensory and capacious.”13Salomé Voegelin, The Political Possibility of Sound: Fragments of Listening (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018). Listening takes on a new significance here, not as a passive reception of sound waves, but as a form of activism, a reaching out, a temporally and spatially grounded and grounding practice that could play a vital role in reimagining our cities. After all, to listen is to give attention, and to give attention – especially in this age of acceleration and distraction – is to express care.
Infrastructure and the built environment are central to how we nurture and develop caring cities. The solidity and permanence of structural and architectural measures, however, can make the task of building a city that works for all – not only the able-bodied white men whose needs have defined the direction of urban planning historically – seem overwhelming in terms of time, energy and resources. The urban acoustic environment, by contrast, can be more fluid and malleable. Malmö’s kulturljudzon shows how a shift in our sonic surroundings can begin to reshape how we use and access public space, how we define who is welcome, and how we find care and connection. This, in turn, can play a prefigurative role in relation to more lasting changes to our urban spaces.
Lucy Cathcart Frödén is a researcher, linguist and community artist, working primarily in music and sound. Her PhD at the University of Glasgow, entitled ‘Echolocations: exploring integration and the ethics of participation through collaborative songwriting’, sought to better understand how shared creative practice might help foster solidarity and mutual care and how in-between spaces – between languages, cultures, disciplines or art practices – can become common ground. She is currently embarking on a post-doc at the University of Oslo, exploring the complexities of how power operates in prison environments and in prison-based music-making, through a twin focus on sound and narrative.
|↑1||The Care Collective, The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence (London: Verso, 2020), 96.|
|↑2||Brandon LaBelle, Sonic Agency (London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018), 32.|
|↑3||https://bidmalmo.se/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Pp-6053-Planprogram-samrad-lasversion.pdf (accessed 1 May 2023).|
|↑4||Leslie Kern, Feminist City (London and New York: Verso, 2020), xii.|
|↑5||See, for example, http://movingsoundtech.com/mosquito-faq (accessed 1 May 2023).|
|↑6||Judith Butler, Frames of War (London and New York: Verso, 2016), 22.|
|↑7||Max Dixon, Urban and Regional Planning: Introducing the Soundscape Approach (Stockholm: City of Stockholm Environment and Health Administration, 2012), 48-51. https://ljudplanering.se/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/designing-soundscape-for-sustainable-urban-development.pdf (accessed 1 May 2023).|
|↑8||Xochitl Gonzalez, “Why do Rich People love quiet?”, The Atlantic, September 2022) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/09/let-brooklyn-be-loud/670600/ (accessed 1 May 2023).|
|↑9||Brandon LaBelle, Sonic Agency (London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018), 61.|
|↑10||Li Wei, “Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language,” Applied Linguistics, 39, no. 1 (February 2018): 9–30, https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/amx039 (accessed 1 May 2023).|
|↑11||David Gramling, The Invention of Monolingualism (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016).|
|↑12||Kern, Feminist City, xiii.|
|↑13||Salomé Voegelin, The Political Possibility of Sound: Fragments of Listening (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018).|