Good Fences Make Good Neighborhoods

Good Fences Make Good Neighborhoods was an entry into the 2012 San Francisco Urban Prototyping Festival hosted by GAFFTA, ReBar, IDEO and the 5M Placeworks.  This festival explored how things like accessibility to coding and the democratization of physical computing (ie, Arduino) can inform urban design.  So take great ideas for cities, add DIY/maker ethos, mix, repeat.  The projects were meant to be cheap and replicable.  Good Fences ended up being more of a completed art project than prototype of anything, but it did serve to get many people thinking about sound + cities in a new light.  Also, it was a great excuse to hang 19 loudspeakers on a chain-link fence!

The piece is a data sonification, which interpreted different datasets through sound.  The sounds themselves were very composed, and Emily and I used the constraints of the data as a new compositional challenge.  Each of the 19 loudspeakers represented a neighborhood or two of SF:

19 loudspeakers were arranged to create a sonic geography roughly equating to the map of San Francisco

We chose 4 sets of information:

  • Trees planted in San Francisco since 1980 (from the Urban Forest Map)
  • Time and height of tides and water temperature along the SF coastline during June 2012
  • Wind direction and speed along with solar irradiance at 4 locations throughout the city, Jan – Aug 2012
  • Language demographics by neighborhood, as of the 2010 US Census

Despite the very different timescale of each dataset, each is scaled to a 3-minute window. The spatial location of each piece of information was determined by the loudspeaker layout.  Because this was a 19-channel spatial audio piece, it is difficult to convey it in stereo.  That said, these files will give you an idea:


In this section, the plucked sound represents a high or low tide.  The timing of the sounds represents the linearly scaled timing of the times over the month.  The pitch of the plucked sound represents the depth of the tide.  The brighter, crisper sound represents high tide, while the darker, bassier sound represents a low tide.  The roaring sound in the background represents the water temperature.  The locations from left to right are:  Ocean Beach, Land’s End, Fort Point, Pier 41, Pier 23, SOMA, Potrero and Bayview:


Trees planted in San Francisco from 1980, based on data from the SF Urban Forest Map.  Six sections of the city are presented in a binaural soundscape (meant to sound as if you were standing in front of the loudspeaker array).  The creaking, snapping sounds represent a tree planted in that location.  The amplitude of the rustling sound represents the total amount of trees planted. The piece goes from 1980 to 2012 over the course of 3 minutes.

Emily and I would like to thank Toby Lewis, Megan Gee, Morgan Kanninen and Brian Huey for their help with this project.