Stepping on to the streets of New York City or another major city, you will be greeted with a cacophony of noise. From a variety of sources including traffic, people, animals or construction work, you sadly cannot escape it.
By now, we have realised the negative effects of noise pollution on our health with a myriad of research cementing the fact, yet we still see quiet as a luxury.
But it doesn’t need to be this way.
Researchers are investigating how cities can reduce noise pollution. To do this, we need to understand the scope of the problem by mapping how the noise fluctuates across a city, figuring out what happens and identifying spaces that can offer respite for city dwellers.
Erica Walker, exposure scientist at Harvard University said: “It’s not a problem that we can’t overcome, it’s just that we’re going to have to be smarter about how we’re going to define it and what we’re going to do to mitigate it.”
How is noise harmful?
In Boston, Erica has investigated what qualities make city noises so harmful. While measuring noise levels around the city to create a map, Walker discovered that rarely noise ordinances are enforced and that the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommendation of 55 decibels during the day and 40 decibels at night isn’t reality. “During my time measuring sound in the city, I’ve never seen sound levels that are remotely like that,” says Erica, adding “It’s always way over.”
Furthermore, she found that loudness is only part of the picture, with other characteristics including frequency, longevity, predictability and people’s emotions also playing a part in affecting our health and wellbeing, stating that ‘noise is extremely complex.’
By creating apps that locals can use to report noises and mapping the city’s soundscape, Erica says we can identify problem areas in need of better noise mitigation.
A city that never sleeps
New York is described as the city that never sleeps, yet Juan Bello, sound researcher at New York University, says the city has been at the forefront of efforts to curb noise pollution. After all, New York was the first city in America to pass a noise code. However, it’s also the largest city in the country that is densely populated, and noise is an obvious result. In recent years, New York has become noisier due to extensive construction work happening around the city.
Juan and his colleagues are trying to tackle the problem of noise identification and complaints by placing sensors around the city to capture noise in real time. So far, 50 book sized devices have been planted around Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens to record 10-second soundbites. By doing so, Juan and his team can examine complaints and can compare them against the recordings to show the location and noise levels to justify the complaint.
The next step is for Juan and his colleagues to train an algorithm to recognise what is making the different noises that the sensors pick up. Ultimately, the aim is for it to be able to tell you a noise is louder than is permitted in any given location and what the noise is.
To prevent any violations of privacy for example eavesdropping, the sensors can only share information about what is going on and cannot recover the original sound that was captured. However, the team hope to use the sensors to monitor construction sites and other areas with recurring noise complaints, to help the sites to control their own noise output.
The need for peace and quiet
Although finding out why an area is noisy is important, we must not forget the need to figure out how to make a place feel peaceful and quiet.
According to Antonella Radicchi, a soundscape scientist and architect at the Technical University of Berlin, “it should be a right to have access to quiet spots”.
Antonella is trying to find out what people look for in a quiet spot, creating a map showing the areas in Berlin by interviewing residents and workers about their favourite quiet places and collating their impressions through an app called Hush City. Using the app, people can report a quiet area, fill out a questionnaire on how it makes them feel, share a photo as well as record audio from the location. The hope is that the app will help city officials with preserving these quiet spaces while making it easier for locals to find a spot of calm amidst the hustle and bustle.
What can be done?
Ideally, cities can review their zoning laws so that new apartments are located in areas of less noise and therefore put noise mitigation at the very beginning of construction with Erica suggesting “it actually needs to be part of the city’s planning fabric.”
In the meantime, cities can use inexpensive ways to cut down noise such as planting more trees and bushes, subsidising soundproof windows, installing noise-absorbing pavements and preventing traffic from using certain streets at night.
It’s also up to individuals to recognise what noise they are making and minimise it. Often, we do not make the connection with what we are doing and the resulting noise. “We want people to see this as throwing the candy wrapper out of the window,” says Juan.
What can we do to help?
Here at Echo Barrier, we understand the impact that noise pollution can have on quality of life and sleep. Our market leading acoustic products have been used to reduce noise from construction sites across the world including during essential roadwork operations at One World Trade Centre in Manhattan. There was a clear need to keep noise pollution and disruption to a minimum for this renowned and sensitive site for the sake of residents, tourists and businesses alike.
If you’re looking for ways to reduce noise from your construction site, live event or demolition work, we can provide you with the products that can help to maintain good community relations while operating in busy residential environments.