Led by students of the MADD-Master in Data Design at ELISAVA, shhh… presents unpublished data on the conflict of noise pollution in Barcelona. Only behind air pollution, noise pollution is identified as the second most harmful environmental factor to health in Europe, according to the WHO. In this interview, we talk about Barcelona’s role as an urban model for change in the European context, the importance of data visualisation in addressing health issues and what the agency of designers is in the realm of public health.
KOOZ What prompted you to research the problem of noise pollution in Barcelona? To what extent is this a problem which is limited to the city of Barcelona or one which many urban centres are facing?
PMD Barcelona is a wonderful city with a vibrant activity. Is a good example of the mixed uses and sometimes used as an example for other cities. Even when all this is true, we also have consequences from this model that are not so well known: Barcelona has a structural problem with air and noise pollution. As recognized by the European Community and the World Health Organisation, this is not an exclusive problem for Barcelona. It is also an issue in other cities, but since Barcelona’s urban transformation has been used as an example of success to other cities, it is important to note the challenge exists to make Barcelona a healthier city.
The goal of the project is not only to visualise and analyse the data, but to reach the public sphere.
OS What really triggered the investigation was the possibility of developing it within the academic framework of the Master in Data Design at ELISAVA (Barcelona School of Design and Engineering) based on the guided workshops in the seminar "Data for the Common Good" that we teach every year, this year in collaboration with the urban planning agency 300.000km/s. The project has the students identify the conflict and work with data from 2018 to 2022—gathered via the municipal sound level metre network and police reports requested through the transparency portal of the City Council. The goal of the project is not only to visualise and analyse the data, but to reach the public sphere. We have achieved this by holding an exhibition at the ELISAVA gallery—open to the general public—which is part of the programming of the Barcelona Model Festival. Another outcome of the project is a press release with the results.
KOOZ According to the WHO, noise pollution in Europe is the second most harmful environmental factor to our health, only behind air pollution. Nevertheless, this is seldom discussed in the news and / or identified by our smartphones, which on the other hand, are quick to point out outstanding levels of CO2 in the air. Why do you think this is the case? How much ignorance is there around the health implications of this problem?
PMD It is complex to identify a problem when you are inside it or even if you are part of it. Because of this, we need to use quantified strategies based on sensors and data visualisation to show something that we can listen perfectly with our own ears.Data helps us to make this reflection, helps us to show what we have in front of us, to audit the administration and to share this view with others.
It is complex to identify a problem when you are inside it or even if you are part of it.
OS There is still a lot of confusion. First, we need to make an effort to clarify basic concepts. According to the WHO, air pollution is the leading cause of premature death in the world, causing more than 7 million deaths per year, of which 400,000 premature deaths occur in Europe. When we talk about air pollution and its impact on health, we are not talking about Carbon Dioxide (CO2). When we talk about air pollution, we are mainly referring to Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) and toxic particles (PM) outside, especially at street level coming from fossil fuel vehicles, and, inside homes, especially those with Carbon Monoxide (CO) due to combustion in fireplaces and kitchens. The CO2 at street level does not have a direct impacton health. But CO2 at upper layers of the atmosphere produces the greenhouse effect that causes the climate change we are experiencing. The climate emergency causes deaths, especially with the heat waves we suffer, and, here in Spain, for example, during the summer of 2022, there was an excess mortality of 4,700 people due to high temperatures.
Health is the main argument against air pollution, noise pollution and the climate emergency. We have a duty to communicate it well and avoid slogans that promote the dichotomy of "either smoke or hunger".
What we need to communicate is that the health crisis caused by air and noise pollution is interrelated with the climate emergency because both have their origin in the dependence on fossil fuels. Drastically reducing traffic in cities provides us with a radical reduction in air and noise pollution, and the space gained from traffic reduction provides more space for public non-toxic and active mobility (walking, cycling), and more green areas where trees can be planted, helping to lower the temperature in cities. Health is the main argument against air pollution, noise pollution and the climate emergency. We have a duty to communicate it well and avoid slogans that promote the dichotomy of "either smoke or hunger". There are other ways to organise ourselves and be productive without compromising our health. Cities like Paris, London, and recently, Barcelona, are heading in this direction.
KOOZ In addition to highlighting those which are the more problematic neighbourhoods in terms of noise pollution, the research also revealed that complaints filed in 2022 have quadrupled compared to 2018 and nearly doubled in just one year, reaching over 3,817 infractions in 2022 even though the sound levels have decreased by 1.72 db compared to 2018. The project shhh demands a Barcelona with a fair and healthy acoustic environment, what would this look like?
PMD The COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for this growing sensitivity of citizens towards noise. Complaints after the pandemic—in which we learned to enjoy silence—have increased radically. Urbanism has transformed throughout history in response to different health crises. Now, we need to learn to design and manage a city that, while mixed and dense, also needs to be healthy. Noise and air are perhaps the protagonists of this transition that will have to review the social pacts that the city weaves. We cannot create cities that distance leisure from it, but we also cannot have a party every day under our homes that prevents us from resting.
Complaints after the pandemic—in which we learned to enjoy silence—have increased radically.
OS Beyond appealing to individual and collective civility, the solution lies in a city that is distributed in its uses and in its mobility. We cannot have urban highways like Valencia street or Gran Via, indiscriminate 24/7 transportation of goods due online shopping, nor can we accept entire streets colonised by a number of venues that make it impossible for residents to rest, as is the case on streets in Barcelona such as Enric Granados street.
KOOZ The research methodology spanned from the identification of the conflict, to the collection of the data and ultimately to its visualisation through a set of infographics which included year timelines as well as daily and weekly radial graphics. What is for you the power and role of the infographics used to ensure that the issue can be clearly communicated to a wider audience? What possibilities does the exhibiting of the research offer?
PM The exhibition works with the same data in different formats. On the one hand, we show numbers and charts that try to explain the quantitative dimensions of the problem. On the other hand, we have maps that show the spatial distribution of the fenomena and how the environments are around the hotspots. Finally, we also explore a more qualitative dimension of the noise with parametric descriptions that use sound recordings of the public space to develop them. We have highlighted the power of data to show hidden problems, but also we need to ensure that explaining a problem with data doesn't minimise its magnitude.
The exhibition is a great civic tool.
OS It is important to highlight the power of display in contributing to the subjectivity of the visitor, which is in a constant state of transformation. The exhibition is a great civic tool. The elements on display create a landscape of devices that form a sensory experience (audiovisuals, graphic installations, sound, etc.), while also having a life of their own as they appear in newspaper articles, on television, and on social media.
KOOZ What is for you the value of undertaking a research project like this within academic institutions? How can and do projects like this invite students to reflect upon their agency as designers?
PM We want to show the power of the tools that designers have. Sometimes designers work for big brands to sell evil products. We need to show that they have the capacity to transform our society in a positive way. We show the path to this objective and help them make a first step.
OS The students have been able to experience what it is like to work collectively, as a kind of temporary agency to bring an important issue to the public debate table. They have been able to see how their work is being a catalyst for interest and change. In addition to the usual media, it should be mentioned that the exhibition has received a visit from the "public defender of the people", a lawyer from the city of Barcelona to reclaim the right to rest.
Design, curatorial work and data analysis can help visualise hidden problems.
KOOZ Beyond the work undertaken within the academic institution, how do you seek for this to bring about change? Can one talk about research for action?
PM Design, curatorial work and data analysis can help visualise hidden problems. Today, we have strong and deep knowledge about the future that we will need to face: climate change, economic crisis… But the action that we expect from our society is not yet enough.
The complexity of science needs to be explained to make it not only easier to understand, also more appealing and engage.
Designers can help bridge gaps between scientific research and the broader public, making information more accessible and understandable to a wider audience.
OS Absolutely, designers have unique perspectives and skills that can contribute greatly to addressing complex issues. They can create new and complementary evidence to the ones related to health and the environment that already exist. Designers can help bridge gaps between scientific research and the broader public, making information more accessible and understandable to a wider audience. Through their ability to communicate and visualise complex data and concepts, designers can play a critical role in raising awareness and driving positive change. They can help produce the cultural and political change that is needed to face current long emergencies.
Olga Subirós is an architect and curator of exhibition projects that provide an integrative approach to twenty-first century culture and the far-reaching transformations of the digital era and systemic crisis. Subirós, alongside José Luis de Vicente, was the curator of Big Bang Data, an exhibition on the datafication of the world presented in venues including the Singapore ArtScience Museum and the MIT Museum, the contents of which were adapted and extended for each centre. Subirós won the international competition for the Data Square exhibition at the EPFL-ArtLab in Lausanne exhibited till 2020. Subirós has designed the exhibition on chef Ferran Adrià’s creative process and the El Bulli restaurant held at Somerset House in London, Boston Science Museum, and Fundación Telefónica in Madrid. Subirós also did the staging of the exhibition Are you ready for television? curated by Chus Martínez at the MACBA, and of over a dozen exhibition projects at the CCCB in Barcelona. Olga Subirós is a current lecturer on Data and Design Master at Elisava, Barcelona School of Design and Engineering, Master of Design and Production of Spaces CCCB-UPC and a PhD candidate in Architecture and Design at RMIT.
Pablo Martínez Díez is an architect who graduated from the School of Architecture of Barcelona. At present, he is the co-founder of 300.000 Km/s and visiting lecturer at EPFL Lausanne. As co-founder of 300.000 Km/s, he has a strong background in using new forms of information (open, social and big data) to address contemporary urban and territorial challenges through diagnosis, reports, planning and participation. He is an expert in data processes from gathering to publication. He is a pioneer in Spain in the use of open data for urban policies. He is an Associate member from the Open Data Institute. He has lectured at prestigious academic institutions across Europe (TU Braunschweig, Welsh School of Architecture, Institute of Advanced Architecture, UPC Foundation, among others), as well as participating regularly in debates and conferences of significance in the sector. He has written several scientific publications and other articles for a wide public published in relevant national and international reviews and media.