How Do You Tell a Whole City to Shush?

Quiet out there!

Photo by Jennifer Polixenni Brankin/Getty Images

This blog post originally appeared in the New America Foundation’s Weekly Wonk. Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.

We’re speeding toward the loudest night of the year—New Year’s Eve. But for some city folk, the decibel levels on Dec. 31 may not sound all that different from the volume on, say, Jan. 4. And that, says a growing group of noise control advocates, is a problem.

Or is it? In the face of whopping societal problems—like poverty, wealth inequality, and climate change, to name a few—the movement to carve out more quiet spaces in cities may seem a little, well, superficial. But with reports that suggest excessive noise can have a negative impact on education and health, is it time for us to begin legislating noise control as a public health issue—or do we risk sanitizing the lively cacophony that’s characteristic of a robust, healthy city? We asked those questions to five experts.

Christine Rosen, New America fellow:
The challenge of finding peace amid urban cacophony is not a new one. In George Prochnik’s In Pursuit of Silence, he reminds us that America’s founding fathers had dirt laid atop the cobblestone streets outside Independence Hall to minimize noise during the constitutional convention. In the late 1940s, Grand Central Terminal in New York City began piping canned music throughout the station, prompting complaints to the New York Public Service Commission, including those of New Yorker editor Harold Ross, who threatened to puncture his own eardrum to avoid the din.

As the recent public backlash against the possibility of allowing cellphone calls during flights suggests, we want some noise, but not too much, and we have a rational concern about our own exposure to noise pollution. But as a matter of public health that requires government intervention, the problem is a bit murkier.

Like many urban planning schemes, calls for more government regulation of noise pollution come wrapped in progressive-sounding rhetoric and bold claims: reducing noise would improve health, well-being, and civility, we’re told. This might be true, but central planning isn’t necessarily the best way to achieve that. The story of urban planning over the last century is in many ways one of the disastrous unintended consequences of well-intentioned ideas (remember Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects?). Though a new generation of “smart” city planners claims to have learned those lessons, if we want quiet, more laws and regulations are unlikely to give it to us. But as individuals, we can examine our own contributions to civic noise (our noise footprint, if you will) and do our best to minimize it for the sake of a quieter common good.

Chris Leinberger, president, LOCUS:
It is probable that 80-90 percent of all development over the next generation will take place in higher density urban places. That means the new developments, whether they be office, retail, rental apartments, or for-sale housing, will be much closer to one another. Therefore, noise pollution will become a much bigger factor in urban design. U.S. developers have never had to worry about sound; there was always a 150-foot setback from the street. This is where surface parking was placed, or an acre of land surrounding a single family house so we could ignore most noise pollution.

The future will see U.S. developers and consumers learning from the Japanese and Europeans, who have more experience in dampening sound from neighbors who are a few feet away. We will even demand tire manufacturers engineer quieter tires. But possibly the biggest advance to date has been in sound-insulating our windows and walls. As it becomes more ubiquitous, this will allow us to witness the excitement of urban life without being overwhelmed by the sounds. In a surprising turn, we are finding some of the highest prices per square foot are being earned by residential units that can overlook working rivers (partly for the water views, of course) but also overlooking rail yards—which can be engaging attractions, assuming you do not have to hear the rumble of the motors propelling the boats and trains.

Alissa Black, director, New America’s California Civic Innovation Project:
When I worked for NYC’s 311, almost 10 years ago, one of the top five complaints received at the call center was about ice cream truck noise. While that may seem silly, it was legitimate. Noise is an urban problem and one that disproportionately affects low-income individuals in a community. Unfortunately, I think the desire to legislate for quieter spots in a community is less driven by equality and more driven by people wanting to escape from the ubiquitous cellphone talker.

Noise as an urban plague should be addressed in broader terms that allow for quality-of-life improvements for people living in noise-riddled areas, rather than those that can hop into a quiet spot to recharge. One such effort came about in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, a part of the city where very low-income individuals reside. Residents often complained about the noise, but the city was reluctant to make changes without data to prove that the noise levels there were significantly higher than in other parts of the city.

The TenderNoise project, a response to that reluctance, collected noise levels in the Tenderloin and proved they exceeded legal thresholds. It reminds us that broader efforts to deal with the inequities in noise pollution should be at the forefront of noise conversations—and not quieted.

Greta Byrum, senior field analyst, New America’s Open Technology Institute:
Visionaries from the Lomax family to Harry Smith have collected time capsule-like recordings of the ambient urban soundscape, surrounding you with the fractious chorus of fishmongers and fruitsellers on New York City’s Lower East Side in the 1920s; the out-of-tune dissonance of too many bells ringing together on a Sunday in the 1960s; the barking of dogs. The city is like an orchestra—its crescendos and lulls are a testimony to the clashing and meshing of cultures and events that form the urban fabric itself.

Yet in order to work and live in urban soundscapes that are getting noisier—where life becomes an undifferentiated din and where you can’t concentrate or rest—we all need to have places and times to retreat. This shouldn’t just be a privilege of those who can afford to soundproof their homes. We should treat this not only as a case for regulation (which is necessary, in moderation) but as an opportunity for design innovations like New York’s pocket parks or its High Line. But there’s another possible solution: While the introduction of new technologies (airplanes, cars, heavy machinery) to urban spaces has led to the aforementioned increase in noise pollution, technology can also be an answer to its relentless din. If we demand from our architects, planners, and industrial designers the same attention to sound as to other quality of life factors, we could see a revolution in design that prioritizes quiet and restores some peace and sanity to urban living.