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

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