Becoming attuned to the city soundscape

Photo credit: Daria Shevtsova from Pexels

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition 

Feargus O’Sullivan, Bloomberg, like many other writers this past year and a half, has become more in tune to the sounds around him. This resulted in him thinking more about how sound and noise impact on our lives including the opportunity to think about how we will deal with surrounding sounds once the city returns to a more “normal” state.

Recognizing that London’s average noise levels dropped during the pandemic, O’Sullivan sounded surprised when he learned that London noise complaints went up. He learned that this was primarily due to the increase in “neighbor noise complaints.” He then discovered that an increase in neighbor complaints was reported “from New Zealand to Brazil.” Let me add that New York City also saw a rise in neighbor complaints. This should not be surprising with so many people working from home now hearing noises from children in neighboring apartments, which usually stopped in the evenings when people returned from work. O’Sullivan acknowledges that noise has been linked to adverse health effects but then states that simply lessening the volume will not necessarily “make people more at peace with their surroundings.”

O’Sullivan then informs us that acoustic researchers are taking a “soundscape approach” when they reflect on how to reduce some disturbing urban sounds, adding that the researchers understand that dealing with such sounds is not just a matter of reducing the volume. For example, in Berlin quieter seating areas were protected from nearby road traffic by “chest-high barriers.” This design resulted from consulting with community residents who did not want high walls which lessened the sounds but also blocked their views. Today designers use the sounds of fountains to block out traffic noise. But O’Sullivan points out that back in the 1960s designers already knew that a “crashing waterfall” could mask intrusive noises. An example is Paley Park in Manhattan on East 53rd Street–which I visited last month–which houses a waterfall installed to “soften noise coming from 53rd Street.”

O’Sullivan also reminds us that there are some welcoming sounds in our urban environment, e. g. birdsong and rattling pebbles. Yes, I agree–in New York City residents enjoy the shouts accompanying parades and the roars when their baseball teams score hits and runs. “Cities may rattle our eardrums at times, but if you tune in attentively, the sounds they make can be beautiful.”

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