How does urban bluespace diversity affect soundscapes, and wellbeing?


There is growing evidence around the positive effects of soundscapes on wellbeing1, with soundscapes defined as contextually perceived acoustic environments. In particular, natural sounds are generally positively rated and can improve wellbeing2. For example, natural sounds such as birdsong and running water can promote psychological restoration and reduce stress levels3,4. Most research however, has used generic natural sounds incorporating a water feature and unidentified birds5 to show associations with wellbeing. Further examination of the structural complexity of natural environments that create positive soundscapes is necessary. In particular, the environmental attributes of bluespace that contribute to wellbeing are much less studied than those of greenspace. Therefore, this study aims to fill these gaps in knowledge by exploring the value of diverse urban bluespaces in creating soundscapes that promote wellbeing.
Indeed, positive wellbeing outcomes from natural soundscapes, are dependent on the animal or plant species and not just the animal class or order. For example, the bird species heard influences how much, if any, psychological restoration is achieved3, while some research suggests that bird richness has less of a positive effect on psychological wellbeing than plant species richness6. Perceived bird richness may depend on the birds being vocal at the time the perceiver is present, compared with actual bird richness. This suggests that structural complexity and temporal variability (diurnal and seasonal) are important controls on the value of bluespace for wellbeing.
Specifically, this project aims to establish if diverse (structurally complex) riparian urban bluespaces create soundscapes that promote wellbeing, and will investigate the following research questions.
1. Does greater riparian structural complexity create different types of soundscapes with improved wellbeing outcomes?
2. How does wildlife’s diurnal rhythms, within the riparian zone, affect the soundscape and wellbeing outcomes.
3. How does seasonal variation in wildlife, water level and vegetation within the riparian zone affect the soundscape and wellbeing outcomes.
Results will help produce design guidance for management of riparian zones, in their role of providing Nature Based Solutions, offering a range of ecological structural complexity options that support biodiversity and create soundscapes that promote wellbeing throughout the day and across seasons.

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Image Captions

Left: Part of the Edinburgh, Water of Leith, riparian zone, complete with waterfall, vegetation and heron. Taken by Sarah Payne.
Right: Part of the Edinburgh, Water of Leith, riparian zone, including diverse vegetation alongside urban residential buildings. Taken by Sarah Payne.


To address the project aim, we will conduct ecological assessments of structurally complex riparian zones along with soundscape recordings and participant surveys following a repeated measures design.
The Water of Leith is proposed as a case study bluespace to answer the research questions. It is a river that flows through Edinburgh, UK, cutting through a range of residential environments and consists of different riparian characteristics. Its structural complexity varies in terms of its vegetation, wildlife, water flow and riverbed materials, which all affect the acoustic environment. An initial rapid ecological assessment of sites along the Water of Leith will be conducted to determine potential suitable sites for investigation, using existing tools. A smaller number will then be assessed in detail to determine the four to six sites suitable for representing riparian structural complexity, ranging from complex, moderate, and sparse. At least one site for each complexity level will be chosen with two sites chosen for some or all levels to determine the value in different types of riparian structural complexity within a complexity level (RQ1). This helps determine the importance of the presence or absence of particular species. Site choice will also depend on attempting to control other variables that may influence the perceived acoustic environment. These will include, but are not limited to, the presence of anthroprogenic sounds (e.g. cars, construction), presence of people, visibility of the water, and visibility of urban environments.
In depth ecological assessments of the site to determine habitat structural complexity will involve recording height and diversity of different vegetation components, deciduous and coniferous trees (height of a representative subset of trees will be measured using a clinometer), shrubs, and herbaceous species. While conducting vegetation surveys, bird species seen and/or heard, along with other audible wildlife, will be noted. Assessments will be made at two different times of the day and in all four seasons to check the temporality of the habitat structural complexity.
Preliminary recordings of the acoustic environment using an audio recorder with an x/y microphone (for stereo sound) and a sound pressure level meter will be made to assist with site choice. To determine the acoustic environment in relation to the perceived acoustic environment (the soundscape), further recordings will be made at the time each participant is present. Standard acoustic and psychoacoustic metrics will be calculated from the recordings, along with sound source identification.
Soundscapes and wellbeing outcomes will be assessed using a questionnaire with open and closed questions. Data collection protocols for soundscapes will be followed (ISO12913-2). Wellbeing outcomes will involve assessing psychological restoration (after a pre-intervention stressor is given, such as a cognitive attention task), and affect (emotion). Measures will be taken pre and post intervention (exposure to the chosen sites). Participants will visit one site, complete a stressor task and answer pre-intervention questions, before sitting in the site for 5 minutes by themselves. Post-intervention questions including the wellbeing outcomes will then follow, while still stationary at the site. Participants will repeat this procedure in all study sites at the same time of day, with the order of site visits systematically varying across participants to control for order effects. This procedure will then be repeated at a different time of day and across all four seasons (RQ2 and RQ3).
There is further potential to simulate the sites using the audio recordings and ecological information to enable participant focused laboratory experiments whereby visual and acoustic characteristics from the riparian sites can be manipulated to check the role of a variable in the wellbeing outcomes.

Project Timeline

Year 1

In the first six months, the student will review the current research and receive training in any underdeveloped area of expertise (e.g. field audio recordings or preliminary ecological or fluvial assessments). Work will commence on selection of study sites, using satellite data and city maps showing footpaths, and making use of existing noise modelling datasets to control for anthropogenic noise levels. A short-list of sites will be ground-truthed to select final locations. This period will also allow exploration of existing biodiversity data sets for Edinburgh. The experiment will be designed, participants recruited, and the student will commence the fieldwork.

Year 2

Fieldwork will continue, with one round of experiments conducted in each season. Analysis of each condition will occur simultaneously to spot patterns arising and any issues that may need correcting in future conditions. Academic papers will be drafted to cover each of the research questions. Where suitable, further training on statistical analysis will be conducted. Work will be presented at a UK conference, such as Institute of Acoustics.

Year 3

Final analysis will occur, and additional fieldwork will be conducted where necessary to fill gaps in sample numbers or to further explore or explain results from early analysis. Analysis and academic paper writing will continue. This may include some simulation experiments under controlled settings. Work will be presented at an international conference, such as Ecosystems Services Partnership.

Year 3.5

Final drafting of the thesis will occur and publication of journal articles will be completed.

& Skills

Heriot-Watt University provide PhD training on research philosophy and design, ethics, and post-graduate courses relating to riparian zones that the student can access. UKCEH also offer training courses on statistical analysis using R, environmental data collection and experimental design. These specialist skills will assist the student with their research and future employability. Access to national training groups such as the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science and developing transferrable researcher skills will be encouraged by examining the Vitae Researcher Development Framework at a regular basis. Standard courses on paper writing, project and time management are provided by both institutes along with support systems including the UKCEH Bangor weekly student and early career researcher meetings, and cross CEH post-graduate programme. Where specialist training is necessary outwith these domains, relevant courses will be sourced.

References & further reading

1 Aletta,F. et al. (2018). Associations between positive health-related effects and soundscapes perceptual constructs: A systematic review. Int J Environ Res Public Health, 15, 2392.
2 Lercher,P. et al. (2015). Perceived soundscapes and health related quality of life, context, restoration, and personal characteristics. Case studies. In Kang,J. & Schulte-Fortkamp,B. (Eds.) Soundscape and the built environment. Florida:CRC Press. p90-133.
3 Ratcliffe,E. et al. (2016). Associations with bird sounds: How do they relate to perceived restorative potential? J Environ Psychol, 47, 136–144.
4 Payne, SR. (2013). The production of a Perceived Restorativeness Soundscape Scale. Appl Acoust., 74(2), 255-263.
5 Alvarsson,JJ. et al. (2010). Stress Recovery during Exposure to Nature Sound and Environmental Noise. Int J Environ Res Public Health, 7, 1036–1046.
6 Fuller,RA. et al. (2007). Psychological benefits of greenspace increase with biodiversity. Biol Lett, 3, 390-394.
7  Visser-Quinn,A. & Bedinger,M. (2020)

Further Information

For enquiries about the project please email the supervisors Sarah Payne (, Laurence Jones (, and Lindsay Beevers (

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