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Noise and Urbanization

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noise and urbanization-small_compressedThere are plenty of benefits to living in a big bustling city. For some, it’s more a matter of necessity than it is of choice, but there’s still something special about city life that can make you feel like you are part of something bigger than yourself. Convenience, proximity to work and entertainment, a chance to enjoy a diverse and vibrant city culture—what’s not to love? But city life does have its drawbacks, some more obvious than others. For example, it is an unfortunate fact of life that where there are throngs of people, there tends to be a whole lot of noise.

There are plenty of benefits to living in a big bustling city. For some, it’s more a matter of necessity than it is of choice, but there’s still something special about city life that can make you feel like you are part of something bigger than yourself. Convenience, proximity to work and entertainment, a chance to enjoy a diverse and vibrant city culture—what’s not to love? But city life does have its drawbacks, some more obvious than others. For example, it is an unfortunate fact of life that where there are throngs of people, there tends to be a whole lot of noise.

Construction in a city is pretty much inevitable and endless. One project ends, another begins—that’s just the way it works. As the city grows, so too does its noise level. Maybe you get to live in a city that sees a lot of sunlight and warm weather—a boon for many (and a cause of extreme jealousy in many cases if you’re asking a Canadian), but this often comes with the constant hum of air conditioning units as far as the eye can see. In San Francisco, the A/C units hanging out of apartment windows are ubiquitous.

Sitting outside at lunch in an urban environment, trying to wrestle a gulp of fresh air past the smog, it can quickly become apparent that this is not the place for a relaxing picnic punctuated by only the pleasant tune of birdsong overhead. If you’re lucky, the most pleasant noise is often the low mumble of pigeons. Then there’s all the traffic, the beep-beep-beep of vehicles and construction equipment backing up, people shouting, kids screaming, pedestrians yelling into their phones as they walk blindly into lamp posts…well, you get the point.

Noise is everywhere. It surrounds and, at times, overwhelms us. Some are better at adapting to a noisy city life than others. Some consider the noise a minor nuisance, if they consider it a nuisance at all. Then there are those of us who lose a little piece of sanity in the wake of every honking horn and heart-stopping car backfire. We know noise is a problem in our cities, but just how big a problem is it?

Noise Pollution

Noise is a pervasive disturbance to our environment that some sources say is escalating so rapidly in modern society as to become one of the major threats to the quality of our lives (Bugliarello, Alexandre & Barnes, 1976).

Noise is generally defined as unwanted sound. That’s straightforward enough, but such a definition does, in a way, understate the seriousness of noise as a social problem. Noise pollution is a form of air pollution, making it a threat to health and wellbeing (Goines & Hagler, 2007).Noise & Urbanization - Did you Know

Noise can be as significant a pollutant as the toxic chemicals in our air and water, though it tends not to be studied as seriously even though it has always been an issue of public concern (Singal, 2005).

Singal (2005) notes that in the days of Julius Cesar, the annoying clatter of horse-drawn chariots on the cobble stone streets of Rome was considered a source of noise pollution that spread significant discord among residents. It was so bad that public complaints incited policy change and noise ordinances, requiring that chariots not take to the streets at night, just so people could get some peace and quiet. Complaints became even more frequent in the 19th century. Notably, in the 1820s, Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, complained about how disruptive noise was to his concentration. Charles Dickens is known to have organized a petition to the British Parliament in London, complaining about the excessive noise produced by street musicians of the time. The problem of noise is not new by any means, and has gradually gained more serious recognition socially, politically, and legislatively, leading to the introduction of noise control measures and regulations aimed at decreasing urban noise pollution (Singal, 2005).

The US Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended maximum noise level (to allow for intelligible communication) indoors is 45 dBA (King et al., 2012). Outdoors, this allowance rises to 55 dBA. Similarly, the Australian Environmental Protection Authority’s noise guidelines require that noise in urban residential neighborhoods should not exceed 55 dBA during the day and 47 dBA at night (King et al., 2012).

Noise pollution today is considered to be more severe and more widespread than it ever has been before (Goines & Hagler, 2007). A large part of this is a result of urbanization. Urbanization notoriously evolves hand-in-hand with air pollution, water pollution, and noise pollution (Singal, 2005). Population growth, increased use and availability of noise sources, expansion of highways, rail and air traffic are just some of the reasons that noise is becoming more and more of a problem in our cities (Goines & Hagler, 2007). In an urban environment, there are multiple sources of noise at varying amplitude and frequency throughout the day and night.

Family-sm_compressedHealth and Wellbeing

There are many nuances of the topic to take into consideration. For example, some individuals are more vulnerable to the effects of noise than others (e.g., children—both born and unborn—and the elderly), and low frequency noise has been shown to provoke greater annoyance than other noises (Goines & Hagler, 2007).

The effects of noise pollution on health are closely linked to the environments in which people function, sensitive time periods, and locations that amplify the effects of noise (Dora, 1999).

We already know that noise in general can impair health and degrade quality of life. In an urban environment, this potential is only exacerbated. Noise interferes with sleep, concentration, communication, and recreation (Goines & Hagler, 2007). More specific effects of noise pollution include sleep disturbance and fatigue, mood changes, annoyance and irritability, increased blood pressure and heart rate, cardiovascular disturbances, decreased working capacity, disturbed interpersonal relationships, and stress reactions. In turn, these issues can contribute to increased accidents, poor communication, and impaired performance. Even noise levels as low as 30 dBA have been known to significantly disrupt sleep, especially if the noise is intermittent.

Hearing impairment can be defined as a clinically significant increase in the hearing threshold (Goines & Hagler, 2007). Hearing impairment as a result of noise exposure is generally considered to occur when exposed to sustained noise at 85 dBA or above, and this can result in permanent damage in as little as eight hours. Incredibly loud noises can result in such damage with as little as one acute exposure.

Long-term, chronic exposure to noise can, however, be just as severely damaging. Occupational noise is often cited as the biggest risk to an individual’s hearing, but high levels of ambient or recreational noise over a sustained period of time can be just as toxic. Goines and Hagler (2007) note that “as many as 80% of elementary school children use personal music players, many for extended periods of time and at potentially dangerous volume settings.” Granted, this is an example of voluntary noise exposure, which is by its nature generally unregulated and reliant on the discretion of the individual. Involuntary noise exposure, on the other hand, is something that can and should be subject to policy and control.
Policy and Regulation
Legislative policies and regulations are an important step in combating noise pollution. The major culprits in today’s urban environments span from recreational and A/C noise to traffic and construction noise. Transport policies in particular have important health consequence through their ability to regulate and minimize air and noise pollution, accidents and injuries, and climate change (Dora, 1999).

Exposure to traffic-related noise is reportedly the most annoying of all urban pollution types (King et al., 2012). In fact, a recent Canadian study found that 20-28% of urban residents attributed road traffic noise to disruptions during sleep, conversation, and communication. The internal combustion engine propelled us forward in industrialization and technological advancement as a society, but we’re still dealing with the significant noise pollution that stems from its use to this day. Some doomsayers claim that “there is no hope that noise will vanish by a technical breakthrough, if only because there is no such thing as a noiseless machine” and that the situation is getting worse because machines now are more powerful than before (Bugliarello et al., 1976). Valid points, to be sure, but why should we resign ourselves to this fate?

Policy-sm_compressedAcoustical walls are helpful in addressing the problem of traffic and construction noise by mitigating some of that noise on its path from source to receiver. The constant noise of A/C units, however, on both small scale (e.g., apartment A/C units) and large scale (e.g., industrial size A/C units) are often neglected in noise control plans. In downtown Denver, as in many cities, nearly every building has its own commercial-size A/C unit up on its roof. Some of them are the size of an office on their own. These massive, hulking A/Cs and HVACs can go all day and all night, emitting even more noise than the traffic. When a city’s worth of A/C units kick off in the summer, you can hear the whir anywhere you go, and in combination with all the other noise from traffic and people and construction, it can be difficult just to hear yourself think let alone engage effectively with others. A/Cs and HVACs should be equipped with silencers and held to the same standards as other urban noise sources.

Additionally, the creation and maintenance of urban green spaces is increasingly being recognized as essential to health and wellbeing (Bray, Vakil & Elliot, 2005). Nature may be limited in the city, but it plays an important role in healthy living and noise pollution can be as detrimental to the environment as it is to humans. Indeed, the impact of urban growth on environmental and natural resources is predominantly adverse (Barnes et al., 2012). Noise from urban sprawl development has been shown to diminish the value of wildlife habitat, since such noises have a negative impact on wildlife behavior.
Taking all of these aspects of noise pollution into consideration, it is clear that we need to work together to control urban noise and protect our quality of life in the city (Bray et al., 2005).

There are many groups who have taken initiative in this regard, and with a little research you are likely to find similar organizations and movements within your own community. Even the smallest grassroots efforts can make a difference. And our industry leaders have an opportunity to get in on the ground floor by making noise control a priority and ensuring a harmonious relationship between the industry that drives our economies and the individuals that live and work in those communities.

Bugliarello et al. (1976) point out that “just as the causes of noise pollution are partly social and partly technical, so too are the solutions.”

We’re all in this together. Let’s keep our cities healthy and work together to address the problem of noise in urban environments!
References and Citations

Barnes, K., Morgan, J., Roberge, M., Lowe, S. (2012). Sprawl development: its patterns, consequences, and measurement. Department of Geography and Environmental Planning, Towson University: Baltimore, Maryland.

Bray, R., Vakil, C., Elliot, D. (2005). Report on public health and urban sprawl in Ontario: a review of the pertinent literature. Environmental Health Committee, Ontario College of Family Physicians.

Bugliarello, G., Alexandre, A., Barnes, J. (1976). The Impact of Noise Pollution: A Socio-Technological Introduction. Pergamon Press Inc.: Toronto, ON, Canada.

Dora, C. (1999). A different route to health: implications of transport policies. BMJ (British Medical Journal) – Eduction and Debate, 318:19June1999, 1686-1689.

Goines, L., Hagler, L. (2007). Noise pollution: a modern plague. Southern Medical Journal 100:3, 287-294.

King, G., Roland-Mieszkowski, M., Jason, T., Rainham, D. (2012). Noise levels associated with urban land use. Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 89:6, 1017-1030. doi: 10.107/s11524-012-9721-7

Singal, S.P. (2005). Noise Pollution and Control Strategy. Alpha Science International Ltd.: Oxford, UK.

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