By Dom Nozzi
April 4, 2005
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 has 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 suburban areas, ambient noise expectations appropriately ratchet toward less noise. In rural and preserve areas out further still, we should expect an even quieter ambience.
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.
However, I believe it is entirely valid to object to noise pollution that is not a NECESSARY ingredient to a walkable city core. Over the past few decades, noise pollution has shot up significantly. Leaf blowers, parking lot vacuum trucks (at 3 am), emergency vehicle sirens (which tend to be louder, more numerous and more often used than in the past), an enormous growth in burglar alarms, boom boxes, high-decibel car stereos, etc., are proliferating throughout the nation.
[Much of the growth in noise, by the way, 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 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.
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.”