Environmental & Architectural
A Deceptive Neighborhood:
The Soundscape of Toronto's Lower Forest Hill
R. Murray Schafer
R. Murray Schafer is a Canadian composer and writer well known for his influential The Tuning of the World, which has been translated into several languages. He is also the former director of the World Soundscape Project, a research group concerned with sonic environments.
There is no doubt that some people sense more acutely with their ears than their eyes, at least when it comes to sensations of pleasure or pain. Sounds hit the ears with an immediacy that provokes instant emotional reactions.
Throughout my life, I have chosen or rejected places to live on the basis of whether the soundscape would be attractive or at least tolerable, rejecting those near airports, main roads, or with hear-through walls. I have also left places because they were too noisy, and suspect that my behavior is not unique. There are times when a beautiful visual environment can be totally destroyed by ugly noises, no matter how transient they may be.
The polluting acoustics of the city are increasingly difficult to avoid and by now they have rubbed their way thoroughly into the older residential parts of the city no matter how elegant the houses or how pretty the gardens may appear. So it was when I left Toronto a few years ago after having lived for two years in an area referred to by its inhabitants, somewhat wishfully, as "lower Forest Hill."
This is an old neighborhood of large houses, large gardens and very large beautiful old maple and chestnut trees. I chose Forest Hill because it looked sedate and not too thickly-populated. Here, at least, I thought I could be insulated in a large thick-walled old room in winter and camouflaged in a secret corner of the garden in summer.
Actually, the area is much noisier than many other parts of Toronto. The houses need frequent repairs. Many of them are now passing from their original families to new owners, who wish to make significant changes: sun porches, family rooms, larger windows, and landscaping. There are even cases of people's buying houses only to flatten them and totally rebuild.
This means that the neighborhood suffers continuous construction noise, which everyone tolerates knowing that his turn will be next. You can hardly complain about a neighbor's backhoe when you are waiting the arrival of your own cement mixer.
The roots of the old trees often get into the city's sewer system and the branches interfere with the telephone and water lines. Frequently, whole trees have to be taken out limb by limb in order not to destroy anyone's property. This work can keep a chain-saw crew occupied for a week.
These are sounds much more rare in young areas of the city where the vegetation is less developed or non-existent. Other sounds are different too: for instance, swimming pools.
I used to be able to see four swimming pools from my lower window in Forest Hill. In each case, large
old trees had been rooted out to make room for them. The rustling of leaves was replaced all summer by the competing hums of these pools, to which at night was added the hefty vibrations of countless air conditioners‑-which everyone had.
These sounds would be less pronounced in newer suburbs. I used to notice this fact on visits to my brother's house in Markham. In a new development, there is little road or sewer repair work to be done. The owners have not yet grown tired of their homes and have not yet begun to remodel them. There are few swimming pools. They will come after the mortgages are paid off.
Another difference is in ways of gardening. Lawn mowers remain the same but, while everyone in the suburbs cuts his own grass, in Forest Hill no one did. They had Portuguese or Greek gardeners who arrived often at 7:30 am and went from one lawn to the next, finishing at about noon.
In the suburbs, lawns are cut after work or on weekends; here, one hears the recital over orange juice.
I believe that there is no reason for a society to call itself "advanced" when it has made no effort to silence the power lawn mower‑-a device now almost 50 years old. The price of one concert ticket added to the cost of a lawn mower could provide a muffler sufficient to reduce noise emission by 20 decibels.
One professional-gardening instrument that has not yet made its way to the private arsenal is the leaf blower‑-one of the most thoughtless inventions of modern civilization. It is debatable whether this device clears leaves and grass better than a rake; it is certain that this noisy contraption destroys the hearing of their operators.
Only a brutish society would allow itself to be awakened each morning to such non-natural noises as these without a murmur of protest. Gone is the careful shaping of vegetation that once marked the gardener's art. Grass is shaved, flowers are chopped, and anything else is shredded. Finally, the debris is blown around in circles in a vague attempt to make piles.
The characteristic autumn sound of leaf raking has been replaced in lower Forest Hill by the howling of the blower. And there is an abundance of leaves from the large old trees to make mighty work for the lawn men.
I used to notice how they would often drive up in their trucks again in the late afternoon to step out and blow the leaves off the driveways so that their patrons will have a nice, clean place to park when they come home from the office.
Such operations must, of course, be performed daily from early October until the first snowfall when snow plowing begins. The old autumnal smell of burning leaves, so strong in my childhood memories, has been replaced by city trucks with huge nozzles and an incredible scream. These trucks move through the streets to suck up leaves and pulp them.
Autumn is also a time for draining swimming pools. Maintenance men arrived with pumps that roared continuously for three hours. The reverse occurred in May when the same men cleaned and filled the pools. These two sounds framed the summer in lower Forest Hill as faithfully as the flocks of migrating Canada geese frame the seasons of the rural soundscape.
There were many other characteristic sounds in Forest Hill that distinguished it from other parts of Toronto. Most of the neighborhood canines were large and looked like guard dogs. None of these dogs stayed out all night, so at about eight a.m., their owners would let them out.
Since these owners were off to work by nine, and since they would not consider "disturbing the neighborhood" by leaving the dogs to bark all day, they were presumably put back inside before the owners left. The only other time the dogs barked was about 10:30 p.m. when they were taken out for their evening walks. One rarely heard a dog earlier in the evening because the owner had gone out for the evening. And only rarely would a neighborhood party spill out over the block to keep one awake all night.
All together it was a deceptive neighborhood, quiet and respectful, in one way, but, in another way, far more ferocious than many other parts of the city. The noises were part of the technological transformation experienced by all older parts of Toronto in which decaying properties and utilities are repaired.
What amazed me was the evident faith that‑-since money procures, among other things, peace and quiet‑-the residents had acquired that condition by buying in the best part of town. They seemed dead scared to admit they were stuck in a world that, soundwise, was as painful as pleasurable.