Parks are places for relaxation and recreation with documented economic value, social importance, and health and environmental benefits. Johnson City, Tennessee, has a variety of parks that are designed for a wide range of public uses including hiking, recreational team sports, water sports, and several have playgrounds and leisure areas for picnics or gatherings.
I have chosen to document the soundscapes for two Johnson City parks that were constructed for different types of outdoor activities. The first, Buffalo Mountain Park, is a 725-acre natural park which is located on the northern face of Buffalo Mountain and the park is primarily used for hiking and picnicking. The second, Winged Deer Park, is a 200-acre district park on the north side of Johnson City that includes softball fields, scorer’s tower, restroom facilities, soccer fields, batting cages, disc golf course, playground, and paved walking trails. Winged Deer Park also features a lakefront area with sand volleyball courts, public boat access, boardwalk, amphitheater, a multi-use plaza, and restroom facilities. Also on the property is a historical area with one of Johnson City’s oldest homes, the Massengil Monument, and the James H. Quillen Historical Tree Arboretum (johnsoncity.org).
The parks in my soundscape study are complete opposites in their design, function in the community, economic impact for the city, and types of facilities. Although only a short drive from town, Buffalo Mountain Park is distanced from the busy roads in and around John City and is was apparently designed with the preservation of the natural landscape and soundscape in mind. The entrance to the park is located approximately one mile to the west of Interstate-26, the major interstate highway connecting Johnson City to Asheville, North Carolina. The park and hiking trails are located on the northern slope of Buffalo Mountain, which seems to provide a natural barrier between park visitors and the disruptive noise of the busy interstate. Winged Deer Park, on the other hand, was constructed only a few yards off the busy Bristol Highway on the north side of Johnson City. The park sits a few feet above the elevation of the highway and this seems to be the only noise-reducing barrier provided to park visitors.
When I arrived to do my field recording at Buffalo Mountain Park, the small parking area at the entrance to the trail was full. It was a very nice day with the temperature in the 70’s, slightly cloudy, and very humid. On my short 15-minute hike to my recording spot, I passed only one other person and his dog. When I reached a small clearing with some trees laying across the path, I decided that this would be a good place to record. At first, I noticed a lot of flies buzzing around, but as I got quieter, the sounds of other forest creatures started to emerge. Birds came closer and their songs became more frequent and I also heard several instances of small creatures rustling around in the leaves.
On the trek back to my car, I passed three more people, each with a dog. As I neared the trail exit, I met the first man and his dog that I had seen on my way in. After noticing that every person I had seen on the trail had a furry companion, I decided to ask the guy why he brought his dog to Buffalo Mountain. He told me that his dog was a Basset Hound and Beagle mix that was bred for hunting. Since he was not a hunter, he liked to bring his dog here because he could let him off his leash and he could tell that it made the dog happy to be in this natural setting. When I asked if he had ever taken his dog to Winged Deer Park to walk, he told me that he had never heard of it. He also told me that he was a student at ETSU, so the proximity to the university makes it an ideal spot for students to get outdoors and get some exercise.
-Recordings made with a TASCAM DR-22WL and edited (normalization and eq) in GarageBand.
-Sound pressure level reading with Decibel 10 (version 5.2.1) on iPhone 7.
I visited Winged Deer Park on the same evening with the hopes that the nice weather would have plenty of people out at the park enjoying the day. This park was much busier with people participating in a wide variety of activities. The softball fields are the dominating feature of the park and all the ones that I could see were occupied by children and adults alike taking batting practice or playing semi-organized games. I found a spot on a hill near the cabin and monuments to start my recorder. The spot offered a great view of most of the park, but also exposed my recording device to the wind, which had picked up since my arrival. Unfortunately, the recorder picked up a lot of wind noise, but the wind was part of the soundscape for that day even if it was slightly exaggerated by the microphone.
The sound level here was much higher that at Buffalo Mountain. The highway provided an almost constant hum, akin to the creek that provided a constant base of sound at the other location. The birds were much louder here and they formed a kind of rhythm with the sounds of bat hitting ball and ball smacking glove. Cars drove through the parking lot in front of me while runners made laps around the softball fields. I estimated that there were at least 50 people in my view at any given time while I only saw one person walking a dog.
Jeff Todd Titon refers to music and other man-made sounds as a bio-cultural resource which he relates to finite natural resources. While music and language are not finite, these and other cultural elements can become extinct by lack of support or interest. Just as Titon argues that cultural diversity needs care, management, and interest to continue to be a cultural resource, the same care must go into maintaining the soundscapes in parks that support their intended uses. Douglas Reichert Powell, a native to the Johnson City area, criticizes newly constructed public spaces such as Winged Deer Park for focusing on activities that are uniformly practiced from place to place and that have little to do with their spatial context or the identity of the community. Powell’s descriptions, histories, and local perspective of Winged Deer Park and Buffalo Mountain Park are why I chose these two locations for my portion of the documentation of the sounds of Johnson City.
The study of soundscapes in natural and man-made settings is a field that has recently seen increasing growth over the past two decades. Much of the research has focused on sound factors that make park experiences comfortable and enjoyable for visitors, determining noise issues for different settings, and in soundscape management.
Acoustic comfort is at the center of many soundscape studies and is one of the most important factors in determining the overall quality of experience in a natural space (Pilcher). In natural spaces, visitors prefer sounds that promote feelings of calmness, enhance their perceived tranquility, and that are deemed acceptable for the type of outdoor space they are visiting (Watts). Other studies have found that soundscapes share strong ties with visual comfort and that overall audio and visual congruence ultimately determines how a space is “felt” (Tse, Brown).
Noise issues can be man-made (anthrophony), made by other living things (biophony), or made by other natural sources such as water, weather, or the Earth (geophony) (Pijanowski). Of these contributors to the soundscape, anthrophonic sounds are generally perceived as the most intrusive. Studies have been done to determine acceptable levels of man-made sounds such as automobiles, construction, and aircraft (Aasvang, Watts, Pilcher). One study even found that the sound of people having a conversation on a hiking trail was rated as highly disruptive to the soundscape and to the perceived comfort level (Merchan). The National Parks Service has published an interactive website with sounds collected from various parts of The Great Smokey Mountains National Park with maps that show how the park would sound in the absence of man-made sounds and average sound pressure levels as the park is today (National Park Service).
With this information in mind, lots of effort has been put into managing soundscapes through planning and design of parks based on their intended uses (Andreas, Brown, and Watts). Arguments are made that soundscape design is just as important as the visual design of any outdoor space (Brown & Andreas). Because soundscapes are an integral part of not only how we perceive nature, but on nature itself, our knowledge of man-made and environmental sounds should be used to protect the soundscapes of natural spaces (Pijanowski).
What I found after recording at Winged Deer Park and Buffalo Mountain Park didn’t surprise me a while lot. The soundscape on the hiking trail at Buffalo Mountain was heavily dominated by the sounds of the creek. It took me a while to find a spot to record that wasn’t too close to the creek and that was wide enough for hikers to pass by without much interruption. No hikers passed by during my recording, but I think I collected a good representation of the soundscape. I heard very few birds on my hike in, but as I settled down and got my recording equipment and notebook out, the birds became more noticeable.
The recordings at Winged Deer Park were similarly unsurprising, except for the incredible amount of wind, which I did try to reduce by taking out some of the low frequencies in the recording. Here, the sounds of people clearly dominated the soundscape. The sounds of people playing softball stood out in most of the recording. Besides music, one of my personal favorite human-made sounds is the “pop” of a baseball hitting a glove. So, for me, that was a calming sound which I can relate to Watts’ study. The cycles of various types of automobiles passing by creates a bottom layer of sound upon which all other sounds are built, only punctuated by excessively loud motorcycles and trucks. Also, I expected the average sound pressure level to be higher here, which it was, but the volume and quantity of bird sounds was much more than I anticipated. With so much competition for sound space, the birds appeared to send out their songs more frequently and with more volume.
The soundscapes at these Johnson City parks were clearly designed with their intended uses in mind. Sounds, even those we are not actively listening to, can affect our mood and the comfort level of a space. Sounds are tied to the visual setting and types of activities being performed at a location so much that what would be incredibly intrusive at one location can be easily overlooked at another. The parks of Johnson City provide a wide variety of sounds that deserve more active listening and thought on their relevance as a cultural resource.