Monthly Archives: April 2005

Noise Pollution Should be Mostly — But Not Always — Context Sensitive

By Dom Nozzi

Noise control is an important element in community design. But if we are striving to design a quality community, the level of ambient noise needs to vary based on your location in the community.

If you desire a walkable, compact, urban lifestyle, you should expect higher levels of ambient noise, because a walkable lifestyle necessarily includes more activity and vibrancy – which inevitably means more noise. Through compact concentration, activities occur in closer proximity — in other words, it is condensed in a smaller space. And because a walkable lifestyle means that there is a more vibrant public realm, there is more noise-producing “hustle and bustle.”

As we move away from the walkable core, into drivable suburban areas, ambient noise expectations appropriately ratchet downward. In rural and preserve areas out further still, we should expect an even quieter ambience.

Like many others, I personally don’t mind the necessary, expected, traditional urban noises in the walkable core of a city, even though they tend to be relatively louder and more 24/7 than those in the suburban or rural areas. I am happy to accept higher ambient noise levels as an acceptable trade-off for better walkablility. I like being where the action is found.

However, I believe it is entirely valid to object to noise pollution that is not a necessary ingredient to a walkable town center. Over the past few decades, noise pollution has shot up significantly. Leaf blowers, parking lot vacuum trucks (which often operate at 3 a.m.), emergency vehicle sirens (which tend to be louder, more numerous and more often used than in the past), an enormous growth in Noise-Pollutionburglar alarms, boom boxes, high-decibel car stereos, etc., are proliferating throughout the nation.

Much of the growth in noise, BTW, comes from a growth in what I would call “uncivil” behavior by citizens who increasingly disregard their fellow citizens and think only of themselves — and much of this incivility comes from the growing American abandonment, neglect and degradation of our public realm.

I would insist that the above sources of noise – the leaf blowers, the sirens, the boom boxes — are NOT what those of us living in walkable locations should passively accept as an inevitable part of living in a city. Each of these noise sources is creating a significant increase in stress levels for even those of normal hearing sensitivities, and all of them can be eliminated or substantially reduced without causing harm to the operation of a healthy, economically sustainable community. None are an essential element of a healthy town center.

The great cities of the world were, over the course of great periods of time, perfectly fine without any of these recent contributions to urban noise.

Yes, those living in walkable core areas should expect higher noise levels. But at some point, it is appropriate to draw the line. There is an exponential growth in noise pollution — particularly from sources that are not a necessary part of urbanism — and quality communities need to have the self-respect to say “enough is enough.”

Having updated my city’s noise ordinance in the 1990s, and having been victimized by a great deal of noise pollution over the past few decades, I am in strong agreement with the objections that are often made about noise problems in town centers. It is common to hear objections about lawn maintenance equipment. And while I agree that lawn maintenance equipment is an enormous contributor to noise pollution, I would also point out that another big (and exponentially growing) offender — particularly late at night when most folks are trying to sleep — is security alarms and emergency vehicle sirens.

This source is particularly difficult to effectively address. Even though the noise they contribute is one that I find nearly intolerable, it is a noise that is extremely difficult to control, politically, because there is so much public hysteria over public safety. Efforts to control this noise source are usually met by angry charges that controlling it will compromise public safety. One is seen as a “busybody”. Or “overly sensitive” to a noise that “doesn’t bother most.” And how DARE you call for something that will lead to injuries and deaths!! (as if allowing for the unlimited, promiscuous use of sirens and alarms is the only way to reduce harm).

Note that there are cities who have effectively controlled these noise sources. Fire chiefs, for example, are instructed by elected officials that they don’t need to blare their sirens as much when there are relatively few cars on the road at 3 a.m. And how often are we sending out a large platoon of big, multi-million dollar fire trucks — with sirens wailing — for fender benders? Does it really contribute to our quality of life when we create a “war zone” ambience in our community?

Uncontrolled urban noise pollution is an important contributor to stress, and an important reason for folks to relocate to remote, sprawl locations. Indeed, when I hear politicians claim that they are working hard to control sprawl, if I don’t see them effectively going after noise pollution, I know that their claims are largely lip service. Or naive.

One thing I learned when I updated a city noise ordinance is that one of the few ways to effectively control noise pollution is to have full-time staff whose sole task is to control noise. Assigning noise control to the police is common, and a sure way to ensure that control efforts will be minimal.

After all, what police department will prioritize noise control over, say, murder or burglary?

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

Reforming Parking and Property Taxes

By Dom Nozzi

An important reason why a parking cash out program, once enacted, becomes quite popular for both employees and employers is that it creates a more fair, equitable parking system (by allowing those who do not need employee parking to obtain benefits) without removing an existing perk (free parking).

For several decades, the conventional approach used by nearly all organizations in the nation has been to provide a large subsidy only to those who drive to work alone. For those who don’t drive to work alone, no subsidy is offered. This system strongly encourages driving alone to work (which artificially creates more solo drivers than would be the case had we not distorted the market with this subsidy), and is unfair to those who car pool, use transit, bike or walk to work.

Parking cash out simply establishes a program which equitably levels the playing field. We retain the subsidy for driving alone to work, but we provide the same subsidy for those who car pool, use transit, walk or bike to work.

It is a simple matter of fairness.

Land value taxation is another needed tax reform. This property tax system has been tried in Pittsburgh to remove the tax incentive for retaining undesirable surface parking lots in downtowns, and discouraging downtown infill, building construction, building renovation and a more productive use of an underused lot (the conventional tax structure used throughout the nation penalizes such desirable conversion of surface parking or dilapidated/underused downtown buildings by increasing the tax rate when you improve your property).

The result of conventional property taxation is that a great many downtowns in America have an enormous amount of surface parking and abandoned buildings, which significantly deadens a downtown, makes it less attractive to live in our visit, results in a downward spiral of declining tax revenue and lowered quality of life, and increases crime. Sprawl is Houston Downtownthereby encouraged.

The conventional tax rate structure used by nearly all cities taxes buildings instead of land. The higher the value of a building on a piece of downtown land, the higher the tax. As a result, downtown property owners have a strong incentive to build or retain low-value or decrepit buildings, or simply keep it as a vacant lot (or parking lot) in order to minimize their tax rate while they wait for their land to increase in value. Usually, this underutilized land is being held for speculation. And takes life away from the downtown by being held in an underutilized way for long periods of time.

The alternative is to tax land itself, not the building on it. Under this approach, land that is close to the center is taxed higher, since this is the location where there is usually the closest proximity to goods, services, culture, government activities, etc. By using this system, housing is promoted downtown (housing that is more affordable to the middle class). By promoting new, higher-value, or refurbished buildings, the alternative system improves the overall downtown tax base. It would promote more compact, mixed use cities, and discourage sprawl.

The idea of taxing land instead of buildings is called “site-value taxation” (or “land value taxation”), and was the idea of Henry George.

Pittsburgh and Harrisburg PA (and other cities in that state) are using a modification of the George system. These cities are using what is called a “two-tiered” property tax, where land is increasingly taxed more than buildings incrementally over time.

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Filed under Economics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design