Atlantic Cities

Crowdsourcing a City's Quiet Corners

Lots of things are at a premium in the city — space comes immediately to mind — but peace and quiet are certainly near the top of that list.

Consider Jason Sweeney your sonic-estate broker in this global pursuit of urban silence.

The 41-year-old Sweeney, who lives in Adelaide, Australia, is the creator of Stereopublic — an app that crowdsources those hard-to-find quiet corners of the city. Registered users in active cities (or "earwitnesses," as Sweeney calls them) submit peaceful locations accompanied by visual or "audio" snapshots of the secluded spot. Other users can check out these nooks on their own, or take tours of the best ones, or even receive a warning when they're nearby.

"The question became how to preserve quiet — how to find spaces in our cities that maintain a sense of balance, places of retreat and solace," says Sweeney. "I've always thought of this project as a kind of community building project, a social networking for quiet seekers."


A screenshot of quiet spaces marked by Stereopublic users in Adelaide, Australia.

Right now Stereopublic is available in Adelaide, Perth, and Melbourne, but it's rapidly expanding thanks to the encouragement of a TED City 2.0 prize. Soon quiet communities will emerge in Sydney, as well as Brussels in Belgium and a couple cities in England. Sweeney says his team is also looking into mapping the silent spots of cities in Malaysia and Cambodia. There are even plans to create a 24-7 "quiet music" radio station.

In a sense, Stereopublic is an extension of Sweeney's own personality. He describes himself as a "shy, introverted" person; he signs emails "quietly yours." Yet he recognizes that, as a musician and performance artist, it's been impractical for him to live too far from some of Australia's biggest — and, by extension, loudest — cities. As a result, Sweeney says he's always "listening out" for the reclusive spots that might provide a momentary getaway, and he doesn't think he's alone.

"The hustle and bustle of cities isn't what necessarily draws them to live there," he says. "I am delighted that around me is a community of people equally as excited by the idea of surveying their city space for such quiet zones as a kind of task-based past-time."

All the submissions into Stereopublic are moderated, says Sweeney, but so far none have been rejected. That's partly because Sweeney recognizes that people have different notions of quiet. Oddly enough, sometimes the busiest spots in a city can be so overwhelmingly loud that they achieve a roar of silence. The fountain that masks ambient noise, the traffic island that dissolves into the rush of cars, and so on.

"Busy spaces can also provide a sense of quiet to someone," he says, "so I would never want to judge what someone else felt gave them that experience in the city."

Then again, the traditionally quiet places remain Sweeney's personal favorites. He says he's partial to alleys and small public gardens and especially underground parking garages. His favorite spot in Adelaide is an elevator that travels up the eight-story Renaissance Tower that's part of a mall in the city. The slow journey up and down, combined with 180-degree views, creates what he calls a "sense of temporary seclusion."

Of course to be part of the Stereopublic community you must be comfortable sharing your secret spaces with others. Sweeney, for one, believes that publicizing a silent corner isn't the same as spoiling it. He sees no reason to think that a hundred people who flock somewhere for peace and quiet will suddenly burst into a frenzy of sound.

"If you respect the idea of retreat and quiet, then you wouldn't go there to make noise," he says. "I'm obviously optimistic about it!"

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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