These scientists think peace and quiet should be a human right

New York City

New York City

Step onto the streets of New York or any other major city and you will be greeted with a barrage of noise. It might come from car horns, sirens, barking dogs, jackhammers, or any number of other sources. But whatever you’re hearing, it’s unlikely you can escape it. And if you live in the city, even in your apartment you might be besieged by noisy neighbors or music from the restaurant you live above.

By now, we have started to realize that this state of affairs is very, very bad for our health. Epidemiological studies have shown that noise keeps us from getting a good night’s sleep, boosts our risk for heart disease and hypertension and dementia, spikes our stress hormones, is linked with memory and reading comprehension problems in kids, and causes hearing problems.

And yet we still tend to view quiet as a luxury. “People just have this general attitude that noise is just a nuisance…even the people who are victims of noise also kind of take that stance,” says Erica Walker, an exposure scientist at Harvard University who studies how people are affected by noise. “It’s a sacrifice that we have to make because we choose to live in these place that are close to everything, it’s something that we can put up with, it’s something that we can get used to over time.”

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Walker and other researchers are investigating how cities can turn down the volume. First, we must understand the scope of our noise problem. That means creating maps of how noise fluctuates across a city, figuring out when it happens, and identifying what kinds of spaces offer city dwellers some much-needed respite.

“It’s not a problem that we can’t overcome, it’s just that we’re going to have to be smarter about how we’re going to define it and what we’re going to do to mitigate it,” Walker says

Describing the din

Walker first realized how harmful city noises can be when she moved into an apartment in Boston below a family with very boisterous children. “Above me were these kids that used to run around all day; it was just incredibly annoying and disruptive,” she says. Frustrated, she began to read up on the impacts of being constantly exposed to unwanted noise. “I saw that this problem was way, way, way bigger than just me dealing with my noisy neighbors upstairs.”

Walker decided to investigate what qualities make city noises so harmful. She has measured noise levels around the greater Boston area and surveyed residents to create a map of the city’s soundscape. She’s found that noise ordinances are rarely enforced, and the World Health Organization’s recommendation that noise levels stay below 55 decibels during the day and 40 decibels at night doesn’t hold in the real world. “During my time measuring sound in the city, I’ve never seen sound levels that are remotely like that,” Walker says. “It’s always way over.”

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