A Soundscape Remodelled. Sonic Place Nauener Platz in Berlin-Wedding
Sound studies are often regarded equally as unseizable and transient as their primary object of study. Perhaps a
sole exception, noise is considered to be among the less esoteric, more tangible problems sound professionals
have to deal with.
Since 2011, the European Environment Agency (EEA) and the Noise Abatement Society (NAS) offer a prize in
an open competition to reward European initiatives that can help reduce excessive noise. In 2012, the annual
European Soundscape Award goes to a German consortium led by Prof. Dr. Brigitte Schulte-Fortkamp,
Technische Universität, to decorate her work at Nauener Platz, a small city park in Berlin.
Nauener Platz in the 1980s (photograph by Wolfgang Schröder) Nauener Platz, Feb 8th, 2014 (photograph by the author)
Nauener Platz was entirely remodelled and reconstructed by urban planners between 2006 and 2009. Notably, as
Peter Cusack observes, ‘it is one of the very few examples (worldwide) where soundscape ideas and attention to
the acoustic environment have played a major role in planning and design’–and, indeed, in realization–so that
today's visitors of Nauener Platz can not only enjoy an urban square with several playgrounds, sports areas and
green spaces. The playground is now partly shielded by a middle-sized noise-barrier , reducing the crossroads’
traffic noise on the playground by 3 dB.
Following a distinct ‘soundscape approach’, acoustician Schulte-Fortkamp and her colleagues not only took
measurements and calculated noise contour maps. They also conducted ‘soundwalks’ and even invited local
residents to participate in the planning process. In the end, several ‘audio islands’ were installed. Today's visitors
of Nauener Platz are supposed to sit down on ‘ear benches’ where they can listen to pleasant sounds carefully
chosen by local participants. So far, this sounds pretty good to me. But does it actually sound good?
Noise barrier (gabion wall) at Nauener Platz
Schlüter: A Soundscape Remodelled 1/4
As a cultural anthropologist, I value ethnographic research methods relying on up-close, personal experience. In
search of a specific atmosphere, perhaps even a ‘sonic order’ (Atkinson 2007) or ‘socio-acoustic order’
(Järviluoma, Schafer et al. 2010) of particular urban settings, I often visited the quarter around Soldiner Straße
close to Nauener Platz. Both neigbourhoods belong to Wedding, a district in Northern Berlin generally referred
to as a working class area. Nauener Platz itself was a known drug trafficking location, and the ongoing presence
of drinkers was supposed to keep other possible users of the playground away: children, especially girls, and
Hearing about the sonic improvements piqued my curiosity: What does Nauener Platz sound like? How do
people approach and experience the ‘audio islands’? What were the overall goals of this project and how well
have they been achieved? Since half a year or so, I am a regular visitor of Nauener Platz. Every time I take some
notes, do some field recordings and eventually speak to local people to hear about their opinions.
When I first came there, my impression was that there is still a lot of traffic noise from the street. Aeroplanes fly
over at 2-3 minute intervals (during weekdays). I took a walk to see all the acoustic interventions, especially the
noise-barrier, and the ‘ear benches’. It was a strange first encounter. The noise-barriers' effect (reducing the
traffic noise by 3 dB) is perceivable, but you have to stay below a height of 1.5 meters to actually benefit from
the effect, or on the ground, e.g. in the sand-pit.
Ear bench (left) and other sound devices at Nauener Platz (design by Barbara Willecke)
The ‘ear benches’ play a ‘shingle beach’ or a ‘forest birds’ recording on the push of a button (listen to the sounds
at http://soundcloud.com/field-recording/sets/2013-01-03-nauener-platz-1). What puzzled me, is that you can
turn it on but you can't turn it off: you will hear the sounds for a quarter of an hour, like it or not. Oddly
enough, sitting on the bench, the ‘forest bird’ recording is piercingly loud, and you can also hear that it is a loop
(15 seconds). The ‘shingle beach’ sound is more pleasant, it merges with the traffic noise in the background: now
a soothing ocean surf meets the ebb and flow of the traffic.
I learned that the psychoacoustic concept behind the ‘ear benches’ is to add some pleasant foreground sounds in
order to ‘mentally mask’ the background noise. In a study on the ‘audio islands’, Michael Piwonski (2011) gave a
detailed description of the planning process, and evaluated their final impact. Indeed, the recordings have been
chosen by local residents who requested more ‘natural sounds’ at Nauener Platz. There even was a listening test
conducted under ‘laboratory conditions’. But in the end, the recordings were not installed as intended. It is due
to this wrong setup, Piwonski concludes, that the recordings are now generally said to lack that same sense of
‘naturality’ they were supposed to convey.
Vandalism at one of the ear benches, April 11th, 2013 (photograph by the author)
Schlüter: A Soundscape Remodelled 2/4
However, these acoustic interventions are but one part of a multitude of measurements in the redevelopment of
the site. I spoke to several people about how they felt about the changes at Nauener Platz. Most of them are
fully embracing the new playground equipment and the football ground. The fountain is one of the main
attractions for the children during the summer. According to H., who works at the youth centre residing at
Nauener Platz, people respond ‘pleasantly surprised’ to the ear benches, even though one of the loudspeakers of
the ‘shingle beach’-bench has recently been demolished. I also spoke to S., who works for the local authorities,
and returns once a month to check the security conditions of the playground equipment. According to S.,
vandalism may even serve as ‘a kind of an indicator for the quality of the equipment …if it doesn't appeal, it's
more likely to be demolished.’ However, the ‘shingle beach’ ran for a few years. All things considered, on a scale
of 10 to 1, with 10 being the best, Nauener Platz deserves ‘a good 8’, compared to all the other playgrounds he
To my surprise, noise has not been an issue in any of these conversations. Street traffic in Wedding is often
boisterous and aggressive, with engines revving up, loud music from car stereos, police sirens, and a regular
chorus of horns. However, these sounds rather seem to make up an essential tonality in the ‘sonic habitus’ of
this particular district of Berlin.
In summary, improving the acoustics for Nauener Platz was certainly not the easiest task: a higher noise-barrier,
while more effective, was not considered reasonable, since it would fence in the playground and interfere with
the required social control. The same necessity–to guarantee an overlook from the outside–prevented the
planners from planting more than one or two trees, while trees would have been the best habitat available for the
actual performers of ‘natural sounds’.
Social control was one of the crucial aspects in the redevelopment of Nauener Platz. Fortunately, a second
strategy was to radically increase its ‘amenity values’, that is, to make the site as attractive as possible (so that the
mere presence of people would finally drive the drug users away). According to E., who runs a non-profit café at
the youth centre, this goal has been quite successfully achieved.
Local youth centre, café in 2014(photograph by Alexandra Resch)
It was a cold November afternoon when I visited Nauener Platz for the first time. There weren't many people
around. In winter, Nauener Platz is just as abandoned and depressing as the rest of Berlin. But now, in
springtime, the playgrounds are crowded with children and their parents. The café is booked for a wedding party
this afternoon, Turkish pop music wafts out onto the playground. At frequent intervals, the ball dashes against
the iron cage enclosing the football ground, the players shout. Another ambulance, another airplane. It is noisy,
but it sounds good.
Schlüter: A Soundscape Remodelled 3/4
The project discussed above is a module of the project ‘Nauener Platz – Remodelling for Yound and Old’ in the
framework of the research program ‘Experimental Housing and Urban Development (ExWoSt)’ of the ‘Federal
Ministry of Transport, Building, and Urban Affairs (BMVBS)’ by the ‘Federal Office for Building and Regional
Planning (BBR)’. The responsible organization for the project is the Regional Office Berlin-Mitte.
Atkinson, Rowland (2007): Ecology of sound. The sonic order of urban space. In: Urban Studies 44 (10), pp.
Järviluoma, Helmi; Schafer, R. Murray et al. (2010): Acoustic Environments in Change & Five Village
Soundscapes. TAMK University of Applied Sciences; University of Joensuu. Tampere: Tampereen
Piwonski, Michael (2011): Audioislands auf dem Nauener Platz in Berlin. Eine Untersuchung zur Validierung
technischer Maßnahmen auf der Basis des Soundscapeansatzes. Master thesis. Technische Universität Berlin
Schlüter: A Soundscape Remodelled 4/4