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A sound wave takes the form of a snake. The snake is large and sinister in appearance. It follows behind a figure who is walking away. Illustration.

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Sound and the city

Urban silence is increasingly endangered—and primarily available to those who can pay for it

In London’s Kew Gardens grows the Encephalartos woodii—a cycad brought from South Africa in 1899. It’s the only member of its species ever found, but my thoughts about the threat to biodiversity from the climate crisis are quickly interrupted by yet another plane droning overhead.

Kew Gardens is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it also sits underneath a flight path leading into Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport. The planes come in over the 261-year-old park at a rapid clip, so low that you can read the writing on the fuselage. Kew is a beautiful place to walk around on a bright November afternoon, but if you’re looking for silence, you won’t find it here.

Cities are getting louder. Noise complaints to New York’s 311 service were on track to reach record levels last year, in part because the city’s airspace has never been more riddled with helicopters. Cars and planes have been engineered to be more quiet, but there are also a lot more cars on the road now, and the number of planes in the sky is expected to double in the next 20 years. As all these engines run more frequently, city dwellers are given fewer hours of respite from sound.

Noise isn’t simply an irritation or an interruption to peaceful moments. Loud sounds stress the body and can lead to a host of serious health problems, like high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes. Research shows that noise pollution in the U.S. is more severe in communities with lower socioeconomic status, and in areas populated by people of color.

The United Nations predicts that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, and the noise problem will only worsen as cities become more dense. Urban silence may not become as unique as the Encephalartos woodii, but chances are it will become increasingly endangered—and primarily available to those who can afford to pay for it.

Planes come into Heathrow on alternating flight paths, meaning Kew Gardens and its affluent neighbors enjoy several plane-free hours every day. But in the less well-off areas nearer to the airport, where all the flight paths converge overhead, this is not the case—here, the plane noise is constant. This isn’t just irritating for those who want to enjoy a Sunday stroll: “The impact of noise on children in schools is particularly noticeable on their learning ability. The schools in Hounslow [nearer the airport] are pretty badly affected,” says Peter Willan, chair of the Richmond Heathrow Campaign, an action group working against plans to add a third runway, which would increase the noise problem for hundreds of thousands of people. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends classrooms should be no louder than 35 decibels, which is about the level of a whispered conversation—a jet plane coming in to land right over your head is going to be at least 60 decibels. This constant disruption has been proven to hamper learning: Research from the 1970s in Inwood, Manhattan, found that kids who’d spent six years in classrooms facing an elevated train line were 11 months behind their peers on the quieter side of the same building.

Everyone in the city is bothered by sound to some extent, but whether by design or accident, noise is also an agent of discrimination. Joan Casey, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University in New York, has done several studies on the demographics of noise pollution in the U.S. “We saw there was on average high levels of noise exposure in communities of color, primarily in African-American communities,” says Casey. While the U.S. had a golden era of noise research in the 1970s, there have been no national standards since the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control was dismantled in 1982 and noise pollution became a state matter. “We should start monitoring noise more broadly across the country so that we actually understand what the levels are,” says Casey. “Then we could do more detailed health studies, with the aim to inform policymakers to set noise guidelines.”

Pull up a map of a major city and you’ll probably find that affluent areas are located away from industry, major highways, or other sources of undesirable racket—people with the means to live somewhere quiet have tended to do so. “Although we did find that in some cities, both the poorest and richest neighborhoods had the highest levels of noise exposure,” says Casey, “due to [the latter] wanting to live close to transit hubs.”

While Europe generally adheres to noise guidelines from the WHO, noise pollution is globally under-researched. But you don’t need special tools to tell when you’re entering a neighborhood where quiet is sparse: An increase of just 10 decibels means we experience the volume as doubled. The culprits include power tools, air conditioners, and electronic devices, but the primary cause is transit: Road traffic alone can easily exceed 85 decibels, the level at which long-term exposure can result in hearing damage.

Hearing is a sense we have little control over; unless we wear ear plugs, we’re at the mercy of the soundscape around us. This is likely evolutionary: Sound is a warning to pay attention. But when we’re safe and the noise is constant, this reflex becomes a problem. Noise affects us physically even when we’re asleep.

The Whitechapel Gallery is located on a heavily trafficked road in East London, but Siobhan Wall says the cafe is one of her favorite quiet places to meet in the area. She would know: Wall has written a series of books on where to find urban quiet. The airy, wood-paneled cafe has no music playing, a key requirement for Wall, who has reduced hearing. “It was especially difficult in New York to find restaurants that didn’t play music,” she says. For this reason, Katz’s Deli is one of Wall’s choice spots in the city: “I’d go there after breakfast but before lunch, and it would be really quiet.” Often, though, Wall’s favorites are urban green spaces, such as Snug Harbor on Staten Island, the Kyoto Garden in London, and the botanical garden at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam—places where people from any social group can feel welcome, because anyone can spend time there without also being required to spend money.

Quiet spaces which are free of charge are rare in the city, as urban silence increasingly comes at a cost. For people who have money to spend on the problem, the solutions are often ingenious. In Japan, car-sharing services are reporting a trend where people rent vehicles but don’t drive them, instead using them to work, eat, or nap. Karaoke booths, which are plentiful and also soundproof, have been used in the same way for a lot longer. In major cities all over the world, renting hotel rooms for a few hours in the middle of the day is becoming increasingly commonplace, whether it’s to sleep, to work, or to get some downtime between meetings. Noise-canceling headphones are becoming ubiquitous on public transport, which makes sense: Average noise on some lines of the London Underground and the New York subway regularly exceeds 80 decibels. These kinds of headphones reduce noise by 20 to 45 decibels and are a great tool for protecting your ears—assuming you can afford the $300 price tag.

The price of silence matters because noise is a public health issue—the Quiet Coalition has likened it to secondhand smoke. Hearing loss is the third most common chronic physical condition in the U.S., and an estimated 30 million Americans are exposed to hazardous noise at work. This exposure often comes from professions where noise is part of the package, such as manufacturing, construction, and transport, but even a restaurant can be as loud as a freeway.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends not being exposed to more than 85 decibels during an eight-hour period, but we don’t turn our ears off the moment we’re finished at work. So for many people, once you’ve added a loud commute and trying to sleep in a noisy neighborhood, you get a cumulative effect that will start to impact your health. “Noise increases physiological arousal, which releases stress hormones,” says Stephen Stansfeld, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Queen Mary University of London. “There’s a risk of high blood pressure, hypertension, heart attacks, and strokes. Recently, evidence has related environmental noise to diabetes, and on what’s called the metabolic syndrome—the body’s chronic response to stress.” Researchers are constantly discovering new consequences: “There’s at least one study that suggests it might be related to depression as well.”

Not all loud sounds are the same: having chosen to hear it can make it a pleasure, while resentment can make a relatively quiet sound trigger the fight-or-flight response. A rock concert can be over 100 decibels, but that’s a breeze to deal with compared to the beeps from a stranger’s cell phone. “Aircraft sound seems to be particularly annoying for people, probably because it’s intermittent,” says Stanfeld. “A background noise, like traffic, doesn’t seem to be quite so disturbing.” But even if you don’t mind it, your body will bear evidence: Stanfeld says that “Noise while you’re sleeping will still affect your blood pressure and heart rate, even if you’re not conscious of it.”

A split composition of a female’s face. On the left size there’s abstracted sound waves and the woman, who is a person of color, appears to be affected negatively by this chaos. On the right there is a white woman who is calm and serene in front of a night sky. Illustration.

Getting rid of noise can be difficult: To reduce road traffic, you’d need the city to divert traffic paths, for example, or the state to implement quotas or incentives for people to switch to electric cars. But moving the traffic just shifts the problem to a different area, and even if all cars were electric, we’d still get a lot of noise from the tires on the road. So for now, the best way to protect yourself from harmful noise is to change the immediate environment around you—sleeping on the quieter side of the house, for example, or, if you can afford it, implementing sound insulation.

Anthony Chilton, head of acoustics at Max Fordham, an environmental engineering firm in London, says that sound has always impacted property prices: Research suggests that for every decibel increase in noise level, house prices go down. “If people can afford to pay to be away from the busiest roads or train lines, they usually will,” says Chilton. But sound is becoming more of a concern when new houses are being built, especially now that a desire to live near transport links (and a lack of space) is pushing new builds closer to sources of noise.

Modern noise-isolating technology is making it possible to live next to a major train line and still enjoy reasonable quiet indoors: “You can have relatively sealed buildings that isolate noise, but the downside is that you probably need air conditioning,” says Chilton—you can open the windows or have a conversation, but not both. But again, enjoying quiet without overheating is a matter of money. In London, housing developments are often required to mix market-price units with affordable housing, which might not have the same features: “It’s understood that the noise isn’t ideal, so the [market-value] housing will have air conditioning whereas that’s not put into the affordable housing,” says Chilton. “There’s a clear and apparent differentiation between what you get based on what you can afford.”

With cities becoming denser, the need to build more housing will keep brushing up against the challenge of finding quiet places to put it. Often, noise is a warning of pollution—there will be significant overlap between a city’s sound- and carbon-emission maps. “If we could reduce noise, there could be potentially big benefits in terms of carbon emissions as well. You wouldn’t need to seal up the buildings with all that mechanical ventilation and cooling,” says Chilton—these things just cause more noise for the neighbors. “You’re just kicking the problem down the road.”

More cars, more planes, more people—the argument for why the city is getting louder is strong. But it’s not like city life ever used to be quiet. In 1905, the New York Times ran an article bemoaning life in “the noisiest city on earth” due to endless firecrackers, hand organs, milk wagons, and “hucksters and peddlers with cowbell distractions.” In the 1800s, Charles Dickens was “harassed, worried, wearied, driven nearly mad” by street musicians, and the Klaxon car horn was so annoying to the citizens of Chicago, London, and Paris that it was banned in the 1920s.

Matthew Jordan, associate professor of media studies at Penn State University, says that noise, defined as unwanted sound, has always been a problem for people in cities. Jordan isn’t fully convinced the city is actually getting louder, “but the perception of noise has shifted. The more we talk about noise, the more sensitive we get to it,” says Jordan. This may well be true: Over the course of the month I spent researching this story, I became hyper-aware of noise—my focus on sound seemed to make me more sensitive to it. “You have to keep in mind not only the raw sound, but also the perceptual frames that we use to gauge that sound,” says Jordan. He refers to what he calls “commodity quietism”—picture the ads for noise-canceling headphones where the wearer is blissfully removed from the world: “I think the more that we are sold the expectation that we shouldn’t have to experience any unwanted noise, the more we’re bothered by it.”

Any noise can become annoying if we focus on it—Jordan mentions an anecdote by the Roman philosopher Seneca about a master who had his slaves walk on tip-toes so that he wouldn’t hear them, but found that the noise still drove him to distraction. “Part of being in the world is learning from things you don’t expect to happen,” says Jordan. “One way to keep tuned in to the world is by opening ourselves to listening.”

In the age of constant notifications, it’s bold to argue we should be more open to input. But Jordan says it’s a matter of balance: “Everything is always trying to get our attention, and metaphorically speaking, that is noise too.” And those headphones we always wear tend to be playing something—the brain is constantly bombarded and we rarely spend time just being idle. I have an inkling that part of the reason we’re more irritated by noise is that we’ve never been more flooded with sensory input. Maybe we’re simply overwhelmed.

If we’re so bothered by noise in the city, why do we stay here? There are a lot of towns and villages out there where silence dominates the soundscape. Some people don’t have the means or opportunity to move, but even among those who can, many choose to stay in the city because it’s their home, or because they can’t imagine living anywhere else. “I just love the energy and the buzz of it all,” says Gemma Seltzer, an artist and writer whose work focuses on urban silence. “A city allows you to have moments of serendipity [with] the people you’re wandering amongst. You’re both in the present moment and detached at the same time. There’s a sense of possibility.”

But central to this enjoyment of the busyness of the city is the opportunity to get away from it. Seltzer’s work often focuses on where in the city you can access a moment of peace, be it a place or a time of day. “There’s a big appetite in people for recommendations for where you can slip off the main road and find quiet,” says Seltzer. This can mean taking a contemplative walk along the water, or it can be the relief of putting on your noise-canceling headphones in a crowd. Or it can mean taking the activist route: The parents of the kids from Inwood, Manhattan, who fell behind their peers due to train noise went on to sue, and after the classrooms were covered in sound-reducing tiles and rubber pads were installed on the tracks near the school, the kids quickly caught up.

If you can’t get away from noise, it becomes problematic, both mentally and physically. But a bit of noise is part of living in the city. I stopped halfway across a bridge over the Thames one night, looking out at the foggy city full of lights. The loudest sounds were the trains passing behind me, clanging and banging along the tracks, and the waves crashing onto the Embankment. I could hear the busker playing his violin on the Southbank and snippets of conversation as people walked past me. It all came together to form a wide, deep landscape of sound, and while there was nothing quiet about it, I wouldn’t call it noise, either. But it must have been louder than I realized: I couldn’t make out the engine noise of the red buses I could see shooting across Waterloo Bridge, as they were entirely drowned out by the hum.

Jessica Furseth is a freelance journalist living in London, U.K. She writes about urbanism, belonging, and the culture of technology. More of her work is on and on Twitter @jessicafurseth.


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