THE BLOG
12/01/2014 08:57 am ET Updated Jan 28, 2015

Urban Noise Pollution: Insidious Health Threat or Just 'City Livin'?

Around the corner from my office in downtown Washington, workers are busy putting in new infrastructure underneath the street. The operation is messy, inconvenient (it requires a pedestrian detour) and, above all, noisy. Jackhammer noisy. I hold my ears closed as I walk by. I recognize that infrastructure work is necessary, but I'm beginning to wonder if it has to be quite so loud so much of the time.

Clearly less necessary are the blaring car horns of impatient drivers, more and more prevalent in our city, to say nothing of the noise of the vehicles themselves. There's building construction, too, which generally is a good thing, a sign that the city is alive. But, again, there's the noise. I'm admittedly a curmudgeon about such things, but it's starting to get to me.

The sounds of the city

For example, one would think that, at least at home in my residential neighborhood, there would be respite. And there is, to a degree. But it's been leaf-blowing season. A small price to pay for living in a part of the city with leaves, I suppose, but whatever happened to rakes? Heaven knows, they weren't less efficient; leaf blowers seem to take hours to accomplish their tasks, even in our neighborhood of compactly arranged, semi-detached houses with tiny lots. And don't get me started on power tools, which are plentiful in our neighborhood of older homes and do-it-yourself residents; or the rental house full of 20somethings across the alley who move their sound system outside in nice weather.

Heck, here in DC, we have an additional assault on the ears: military and other government helicopters flying overhead several times per day. I live in between the vice president's residence and the headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security, which I suppose is part of the reason, though I actually have no idea.

All this aside, I suppose I'm lucky that the our Metro system runs a bit more quietly than do, say, the subway trains in New York City. Researching this article, I read several summaries of transit noise, the best on Hear-it.org, a non-commercial web site that has been established to increase public awareness of hearing loss. Some facts from the site:

"According to a study published by Columbia University in New York City, as little as 30 minutes in the New York subway may result in hearing loss.

"The study indicated that noise levels in the subway at times are significantly above the 85 dB maximum recommended levels by the United Nations World Health Organization, WHO, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

"Average noise levels of 94 dB were recorded on the platforms with peak levels repeatedly at 106 dB. Inside the train cars the noise was even louder. According to WHO and EPA, such noise levels are unsafe when sustained for more than 30 seconds."

As my neighbor once memorably told me when I complained (gently, I thought) about some noise in our neighborhood, "that's city livin'."

But does it have to be? We're moving into a more urban age, absorbing more growth and density in city districts, as we must, in my opinion. A quieter life is one of the things that those who prefer suburban lifestyles cite among the reasons for their preference. I find that perfectly understandable. Is an abundance of unwanted noise a reasonable price for a city lifestyle, and is there a happy medium somewhere?

Noise pollution and the commons

The Noise Pollution Clearinghouse describes the quest for quieter cities as an effort to protect "the commons," our "public realm" including those public spaces that we as a citizenry have a shared interest in protecting and enhancing. Through the work of organizations such as the first-rate Project for Public Spaces, there has been a welcome increase in awareness in recent years of the urban commons and its importance. In all sorts of ways, we need to do better by our public realm, which frequently suffers in the US compared to our "private realm" of lavish homes and corporate offices.

"Polluting the commons is not a right," says the NPC. The organization elaborates:

"Our effort to reduce noise pollution is similar to other efforts to reduce pollution and reassert our collective stewardship over the commons. Whether the issue is second-hand smoke, elevated mercury levels, or ground level ozone, the strategy is to protect the environment and our health and well-being by creating an ethic of the commons."

The health effects of urban noise can be quite significant. One of the best articles I discovered on the subject was written by Robert Earle Howells and posted on, of all places, Oprah Winfrey's web site. Bear with me here for another long quote, this one from Howells, because it's important:

"Given the general din of the modern world, the rest of us might be tempted to rationalize noise--to dismiss it as something we can simply get used to. But the research suggests that this is a risky approach. We process noise subconsciously as a danger signal that triggers a fight-or-flight response in our sympathetic nervous system. So even if we manage to tune it out or sleep through it, noise works insidiously, raising our blood pressure and heart rate, and causing hormonal changes with potentially far-reaching consequences, including anxiety, stress, nervousness, nausea, headaches, sexual impotence, mood swings, and neuroses.

"Environmental noise has also been linked to tinnitus (a chronic ringing in the ears that can lead to insomnia), irritability, and depression. Noise has even been associated with a small increase in cardiovascular disease."

Sonic strategies

So, what to do? In the colorfully titled "The sounds of our lives suck! How to make cities better by ending the blight of noise," Salon's Henry Grabar suggests that cities adopt "sonic strategies," adding as well as subtracting sounds from the public realm to reach a sort of engineered equilibrium of sound that is more good than bad.

Although I have my doubts about the addition part of the equation, there's no question that we do have some sounds that are considered positive and close to being universally appreciated: think of certain fountains, or songbirds on a spring morning; the rustle of leaves underfoot or the tinkling of a wind chime. I remember an evening a couple of decades ago when an arty friend took me along on a visit to the studio of a sonic artist in lower Manhattan. He was working on an installation of very subtle, low-volume sounds that would emanate from small speakers hidden in public landscapes. A passerby would likely notice the sound only when it stopped, as it was programmed to do periodically. The entire sonic experience would be experienced only in memory. Would that sort of thing help?

Certainly, places that we do perceive as "quiet" are seldom literally silent. In Howells' article on Winfrey's site, he describes the Hoh Rain Forest in Washington state's Olympic National Park, which "feels untouched by outside forces." Even as Howell describes the Hoh as quintessentially quiet, though, he listened to "a dozen versions of falling water, half a dozen different rustles of leaves." And I suppose that's the key: a rain forest would likely be far from silent, but we are unlikely to be offended if the sounds are natural ones. But is it realistic to find or create "natural" sounds in a city, assuming one isn't in a city park surrounded by nature?

I won't completely dismiss the idea of a city that masks unpleasant sounds with pleasant, natural-seeming ones, but I think I might like even more the idea of a city that is simply quieter. I just don't have much in the way of pragmatic ideas of how to get there, other than things like better, quieter vehicles - including quieter transit vehicles; more regulation to require quieter construction equipment; more regulation of consumer appliances such as leaf blowers, assuming there's no political will to ban them altogether (which I would prefer); and careful restrictions on hours of operation for everything else. That's already unrealistic, of course; transit agencies are out of money as it is, and certainly won't have enough to lower the volume significantly anytime soon.

A comprehensive approach

Fortunately considering my own limitations in this area, others have been thinking comprehensively about these matters. In 2004, the then-mayor of London Ken Livingstone released a 320-page (with appendices and index) manual called Sounder City: The Mayor's Ambient Noise Strategy. I haven't had time to read it all (!), but I've skimmed enough to like much of what I see, from simple strategies such as planting of sound-absorbent trees to more complex ones such as vehicle regulation and neighborhood design. Some of the principal categories of unwanted sound addressed in the manual include road traffic; railway noise; aircraft noise; industrial noise; and "neighbor noise."

I was particularly intrigued by a section on "sound-conscious urban design" and a closing chapter on "integrated noise management." The section on urban design, for example, includes the following passage:

"The balance of advantage between contained and more open layouts will depend on the relative contributions of different noise sources. In noisy areas, acoustic absorbency within 'courtyard' areas should normally be maximized, especially from dense vegetation and soft ground. Rooftop planting may be useful on lower level roofs. In quieter spaces, sound reflection can help people sense where they are. Paving design should consider noise not just from road vehicles, but trolleys, and, particularly over or near bedrooms, footfall."

I particularly like courtyards and love the use of nature as noise-reducing strategies. The section also includes advice on building heights, awareness of "quiet sides" of buildings, window design, vehicle access and parking, and maintenance and cleaning ("e.g. raking, sweeping and local composting, rather than leaf blowing and carting away"), among other subjects.

Mostly I like the idea that cities can, and should, think about noise the way they think about other pollutants: as something detrimental to our well-being, worthy of a sophisticated and comprehensive strategy. In some ways, it seems odd that this is actually a relatively new way of thinking, as the London manual's section on integrated noise management acknowledges:

"By contrast with other pollutants, it is almost universal in our urban areas, is increasingly encroaching on rural, 'tranquil' areas, and is progressively eroding the period of night-time quiet. Despite this, the control of noise has never been subject to an overarching policy or legislative framework, in the same way as, for example, air quality or waste disposal. This neglect may be partially explained by the fact that the effects of noise on the general population have been historically easy to overlook. In addition, the nature of noise, and the reaction of people to it, does not lend it easily to the sort of mechanistic approach available to other pollutants."

While I suspect that London remains as noisy as ever, I commend Livingstone for undertaking the subject.

Other cities should follow suit. The fact that urban noise pollution is difficult to comprehend and tackle does not render it unimportant. We need cities to work better and be as successful as possible in order to secure a more sustainable future for both people and the planet. We need the kinds of cities that people love to live in, and it's hard to have love for "city livin'" when your ears are being assaulted.

With that in mind, I leave you with a video of Mr. Van Morrison, O.B.E., and his wonderful 1990 song, "So Quiet in Here":

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Huffington Post and in other national media. Kaid's latest book is People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities.

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