How can we deal with city sounds?

Photo credit: Deane Bayas

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

This article posted by nonprofit Strong Towns begins by stating that one’s view on urban sounds — positive or negative — is entirely subjective. Writer Emma Durand-Wood states that for her, noise is part of city life. “I even sort of embrace it in some way,” she adds. However, she can’t stand the sound of police helicopters. Given this internal conflict on urban sounds, she wonders how someone can identify which noises are problematic.

Durand-Wood notes that the harm of occupational noise has long been recognized, but she does not believe that the public knows much about “environmental noise.” Environmental noise adversely impacts health far beyond hearing loss, she said. This conclusion has been supported in recent research. She then decided to suggest ways to reduce city noise. Her solutions include adding trees that serve as noise barriers, reducing traffic noise and providing residents with more walkable spaces.

There are good sounds that come from city life, like birdcalls, the sounds of children laughing in nearby playgrounds and even the roar of a crowd at nearby sporting events. However, there are still many urban sounds that are disturbing. This includes the drone of overhead aircraft and road traffic, loud music from nearby venues and the overly-loud chatter of disrespectful neighbors. Thus, I conclude that the majority of urban dwellers would like to see intrusive city sounds lessened or eliminated.

Many cities have already identified harmful noises, evidenced by new or updated noise ordinances and by-laws. Durand-Wood should have included supporting noise by-laws as a means to reduce noise pollution. In Toronto, stronger by-laws to curb noise are being considered by city legislators. Already, many Toronto residents have testified at a hearing in support of this legislation. 

Cities are indeed noisy, as Durand-Wood indicates. But, we can do so much more to reduce the noise pollution. I would urge all of our readers to learn more about existing noise by-laws in their cities, and learn whether they are being enforced or need updating. Then, they should ask themselves if they are practicing quieter behavior, which is important for their own health as well as the health of their neighbors. If the answer is “no,” consider doing so.

The article ends with a quote from Toronto Metropolitan University professor Tor Oiamo, who writes about the harmful effects of noise. ”I think a day will come when we decide collectively that the city can sound like life,” he said. I leave it to our readers to decide what this sentence means to them. A quieter urban environment is a healthier environment for all.

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