By Dom Nozzi
May 15, 2005
I wrote the following essay at 4 a.m. in 2005, “inspired” by my rage after being woken up, once again, to the infuriating sound of a vacuum truck vacuuming the large asphalt parking lot in a nearby shopping center. The vacuuming had been an on-going outrage that the City of Gainesville was unwilling to address.
What are the primary causes of “suburban sprawl”? In general, it is recognized that widespread ownership of cars, abundant free parking and free-to-use roads, combined with the construction and widening of urban highways, the footloose nature of employers, the desire for larger yards for children to play in, and rising incomes, have been important influences that have led people to flee the city.
In Gainesville in 2005, it was commonly pointed out that the flight from in-town neighborhoods in recent years was driven primarily by two problems: (1) A high crime rate (or at least a perception of a high rate); and (2) Poor quality public schools.
Unfortunately, five additional problems had emerged in Gainesville and a great many other communities in America — factors that are probably most noticeable in neighborhoods near the town center. Problems that mostly originated from service tasks that originate in the town center. Problems that I believe are influencing people living in or near the town center to “pull up the stakes” and move out to sprawlsville.
- The Vacuum Truck. At a frequency of three or four times each week back in 2005 (I do not know if this assault on nighttime peace and quiet continues to this day), I was awakened sometime between midnight and 4 a.m. on a regular basis by the high-pitched whine of a vacuum truck. The truck was hired by shopping centers in and near the town center to vacuum their enormous asphalt parking lots. This work — akin to the sound of a dentists’ drill — usually lasted about 30 minutes, but can sometimes go on for over an hour.
Part of the problem was the Gainesville noise ordinance, which I had written a few years earlier in my role as a town planner for Gainesville. To deal with the problem of officers not having a noise meter or not being trained to use one during a violation, I inserted a “plainly audible” rule, that allows a “reasonable person” (such as an officer) to determine, by listening, that the noise is plainly disturbing from a distance in excess of 200 feet. Unfortunately, despite this standard being upheld around the country, a Florida court had recently rejected it.
A second problem was that the vacuum truck produced a high-pitched whine that, while annoying, probably did not exceed the decibel limits in the ordinance. The remedy was to amend the ordinance to establish “octave band” limits used by a number of other cities. What this would mean, however, is more expensive meters would be needed, and more training for our officers.
Unlike in the relatively open, dispersed land use patterns found in sprawl locations, those living in or near town centers tend to be so near other homes, shops and services that noise pollution is much more of a problem. The utter inability of Gainesville and many other American cities to control the unbearable, on-going noise bombardment of vacuum trucks into nearby neighborhoods, then, is a guarantee that the flight to sprawlsville will continue at its high rate.
- The Malathion Truck. Each summer, I dreaded the “hissing sound” when I lived in my in-town neighborhood in Gainesville. It was a sound that forced me to leap to my feet, dash to the windows, and shut them before The Malathion Truck passed by — invading the outdoor and indoor air with a sickly-sweet smell of the Malathion pesticide. Among other things, I was forced to frantically shut the windows because the spray gave me headaches.
I realize the truck is used to try to kill mosquitoes, but I have an environmental science degree, which gives me the knowledge that if we want to control mosquitoes, such spraying is about as effective as spraying water vapor.
I’m concerned that spraying might make the mosquito problem worse over time, since it could be harmful to the critters in our neighborhood that naturally feed on mosquitoes.
Again, unlike in the dispersed, outlying sprawl neighborhood locations, those of us living in or near town centers tend to be much more likely to be inflicted with toxic pesticides sprayed into the air we breath. (remember the old adage: “The solution to pollution is dilution”?). The practice of Gainesville to engage in frequent spraying of toxins into the relatively confined spaces of town center neighborhoods is, again a guarantee that many will be chased to sprawlsville.
- The Banner Planes. Each fall, during the college football season, Gainesville’s in-town neighborhoods are frequently treated to the loud, low-flying sound of the “banner planes” — planes dragging large advertisements over the thousands of fans at the UF football stadium during games. Loud, flying billboards on a Saturday afternoon inflict terrible noise pollution into town center neighborhoods on each and every football weekend.
The City of Gainesville is not allowed to regulate planes, due to federal law. The result, once more, is another reason to relocate to the relatively quiet sprawl locations.
- Emergency Vehicle Sirens. Living near a town center in an enormous number of American cities, one is given the impression that she or he is living in a war-torn area, given how often in-town neighborhoods are treated to the shriek of emergency vehicle sirens racing down the town center streets (where a “hub” for emergency services tends to be located). In cities lacking in elected leadership, this problem is particularly severe, as the elected officials don’t have the courage or the wisdom to control their emergency service providers. Gainesville, like so many American communities, has lacked leadership for decades, so it was no surprise to me that friends and family visiting Gainesville would often point out to me that the sirens in Gainesville were much more noticeable than in any other city they had visited or lived in.
I’ve heard of one city that informed its fire and police supervisors that they need to ease up on the sirens in the middle of the night between intersections, since there are so few cars on the road at those times, and the supervisors complied. I’ve not heard that this particular city has suffered from an epidemic of babies dying in burning buildings, regular traffic accidents, or widespread burglaries, as a result of that effective policy to control the exponential growth in out-of-control emergency vehicle sirens.
How many people in Gainesville, consciously or unconsciously, relocated out of a town center residence because they found the screaming discomfort of rampaging fire trucks to be intolerable?
- The Police Helicopter. When I lived in Gainesville, the city police department and county sheriff jointly purchased a law enforcement helicopter. Like the banner planes, it was loud and low-flying. Unlike the banner planes, it was often used late at night, and frequently used an invasive searchlight to scan areas. The helicopter would sometimes circle for what seemed like an endless amount of time. Fortunately, the helicopter problem has apparently subsided over time.
Like the emergency vehicle sirens, police helicopters tend to be much more frequent in the town center skies than in outlying areas of a community. Escaping the Big Brother helicopter is, of course, commonly achieved by moving to the hinterlands.
Am I Being Thin-Skinned?
Could it be that I am just a hyper-sensitive, thin-skinned person when it comes to these five items? I don’t believe so. On a number of occasions during my time in Gainesville, I had people tell me that they noticed these problems to be significantly less noticeable in cities much, much larger. I also had a number of people over the years complain to me about the vacuum truck, the banner planes, the Malathion Truck, and the police helicopter.
Due to the enormous number and scale of benefits I enjoy by living centrally, I am committed to living in town center neighborhoods, so these problems have not chased me away from living in such locations. But I wonder how many of my neighbors have left because of these growing nuisances…
Are these problems inherent for those that live in town center neighborhoods — problems that people should expect as part of the ambient conditions of living in such a central location? Again, I don’t believe so. I believe that it is possible for a healthy downtown to function without such an excessive amount of vacuum trucks, relentless sirens, banner planes, helicopters, and Malathion trucks. It has been successfully done in nearly all healthy cities over the course of human history. We got by without such things in the past, and did quite nicely. Why is it not possible now?
Until some of these problems are resolved, cities such as Gainesville will continue to see people fleeing in-town residences for the perceived peace and quiet of sprawlsville. If we are truly committed to sustainability, infill, and compact development, I believe we should do what we have an obligation to find the leadership to reduce the nuisances I’ve summarized above.