Where Are We on Neighborhood Noise Pollution?

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

  As a city planner and as a homeowner, I’ve come to understand how critically important—yet hidden as a “dirty little secret”—noise pollution control has become for protecting and promoting the quality of life of a neighborhood. Often, we hear people say that they desire to live in an outlying part of the city—in contrast to a downtown neighborhood—because they seek a “quieter” residential area.

In essence, uncontrolled noise pollution can not only harm our quality of life, but reduce our property values as our neighborhood becomes a less sought after place to live.

Noise pollution is not visible to the eye, tends to be highly subjective, frequently occurs when the “perpetrator” is not home to control it, and often goes away before it can be confirmed by the police. In addition, it is inherently a low priority for a police department (the majority of complaints are for barking dogs, which are usually not seen as important compared to, say, a burglary). As a result, many suffer noise pollution in silence, thinking that it does no good to complain or that others will not agree that it is a problem. Yet studies show that people consistently rank noise as an important quality of life issue. When noise levels are consistently high, humans suffer from stress and stress-related illness.

Perhaps our biggest concern is that over time, as noise pollution becomes more prevalent, our expectations of how quiet our neighborhood should be will go down. We complain less, and just try to live with it—to the detriment of our quality of life, our health, and our neighborhood.

Throughout my life, and despite (because of?) coming from a large, noisy family, I’ve always been deeply appreciative of the peaceful, relaxing, enjoyable experience of a quiet place. Perhaps as a result of this background, and my education in environmental science, I was selected a few years ago to re-write the City of Gainesville, Florida noise ordinance.

While re-writing, I learned quite a bit about the types of noise problems being experienced in Gainesville.

For example, an important motivating factor in the city writing its first noise ordinance in 1972 was the problem of roaring motorcycles. Today, however, the technologies and lifestyles in the 21st Century have created new and growing noise control challenges that we must contend with.

When I re-wrote the noise ordinance in 1992, an important reason for the need for an updated ordinance was the noise being created by live band music at local nightclubs.

But there are several additional noise sources emerging.

Loud car and home stereos are becoming popular, as are power tools for landscaping or other home improvements. These sorts of noises are especially annoying early in the morning or late at night, which is why the ordinance I wrote is more stringent at those hours.

Other recent sources that are now more commonly affecting our neighborhoods are police helicopters, emergency vehicle sirens, shopping center parking lot vacuum trucks, banner planes for football games (and other events assembling tens of thousands of people), burglar alarms, and barking dogs (the latter two a growing problem as a result of the growing concerns about crime).

Certainly, when we live in or near the town center of a city, we should naturally expect higher noise levels than in outlying areas. It comes with the territory. However, I do not think that we should passively accept all forms of increased noise pollution in our neighborhoods, because some of the increased noise problem is not an inherent part of city life, nor is it impractical to control. For example, vacuum trucks—a pet peeve of mine—are not an essential part of shopping centers and will not lead to the downfall of the shopping center (or the city) if better controlled.

In my research of what other communities around the country are doing to control noise, I learned that it is not realistic to expect your law enforcement agency to give much priority to noise control. As a result, communities that are serious about noise control and quality of life will establish a special noise enforcement department staffed with people who work full-time to control noise.

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2 Comments

Filed under Environment, Politics, Urban Design

2 responses to “Where Are We on Neighborhood Noise Pollution?

  1. wes kirkman

    The worst perpetrators are the local jurisdictions themselves. The most deafening sounds in the City, where almost everyone standing on the side of the street must cover their ears, are fire trucks and ambulances.

    Other sources that are obnoxious and at times deafening are motorcycle and diesel engines pushed too hard, usually at the intersection after the perpetrator has been stopped at the light. That is an unfortunate coincidence because there are usually more pedestrians to be impacted at intersections.

    The first issue is simple: the City needs to tell its emergency response agencies to keep the siren levels down. In fact, I don’t really understand why this hasn’t been done yet. The second, I suppose we could ask for regulations on the size of engines, at least within City boundaries (except the freeways to not hinder trucking, I suppose). Though, I’d hate to hear what the backlash from the “freedom force” would be.

  2. I fully agree that, ironically, city emergency vehicles are now the biggest noise pollution offenders. Correcting the problem is not at all easy, for several reasons. Most all Americans are conditioned to be very fearful (compared to most other people in the world). When people are afraid, they are extremely likely to give too much power (and $) to agencies such as the fire department. Very few elected officials are willing to stand up and disregard the common fear-mongering statement: If you don’t let us blare our sirens at 140 decibels, BABIES WILL DIE IN BURNING BUILDINGS!! Many candidates for elected office leverage hysterical fear-mongering as a way to get votes and more public support. There is an inverse correlation between the emergency vehicle siren problem and courageous leadership on the part of elected officials. In Gainesville FL, for example, a city which is infamous for a nearly complete absence of leadership, emergency vehicle sirens are a constant, 24/7 problem. Living there is like living in a war zone 365 days a year. No commissioner there has ever had the courage (or wisdom) to rein in the fire dept. The fire dept budget is bloated and their sirens are ear-splitting loud and constant. A vicious cycle is that the louder and more frequent the fire sirens are, the more money citizens are willing to give the fire dept. After all, the constant sirens surely means the city is constantly burning to the ground. So the fire dept has an enormous incentive to blare the sirens even MORE. More blaring means more $ and more respect. It is only the courageous, wise leadership in elected office that is able to correct this problem. Since leadership is nearly extinct in the US, most cities are plagued by enormous emergency vehicle siren problems. Fortunately, I now live in Boulder CO, a college town nearly identical in size to Gainesville. Here, leadership is very courageous and very smart. As a result, the Council has effectively controlled the fire dept siren nuisance. I think I’ve heard fire truck sirens only 2-3 times since moving here almost 18 months ago, in stark contrast to Gainesville, where I’d hear the war-zone fire dept sirens about 5 times a day (and usually in the middle of the night). Another joy in Gainesville: the frightening, loud sound of police helicopters constantly flying low over residential areas. It creates the impression that there is a murderous rampage in the city every day and night. Another wonderful way to induce more citizen fear and put more money into the law enforcement budget.
    So yes, siren noise can be toned down. But probably only possible if the city elects courageous leaders who can stand up to fear-mongering, and electing such people almost never happens anymore, tragically.
    Should the community have effective leaders, a great way to tone down the ear-splitting war-zone ambience is to get the fire dept out of the medical business. Since fires are so rare these days, the vast majority of fire calls are for medical problems, not fires. Indeed, fire departments should now be called medical departments. An important part of moving away from the war-zone ambience, besides toning down frequency and volume of sirens, is to reduce the enormous and growing size of fire trucks. We need smaller, traditional ambulance vehicles for medical emergencies, not monster huge fire trucks. When the behemoth fire trucks (as opposed to smaller vehicles) run to 8 medical emergencies each day, it is likely to seem as if the city is under attack.
    Much of this issue is a failure by elected officials to understand very basic principles regarding quality of life, since much of what creates quality of life is tranquility. Loud and frequent and huge trucks and choppers are the antithesis of tranquility.

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