by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition
When Dr. Juan Bello and his associates at New York University initiated a project three years ago to measure the loud sounds of New York City, they had hoped that these sound measurements could assist the city’s Department of Environmental Protection in its efforts to reduce noise pollution. They did not envision that a coronavirus pandemic and lockdown would result in sound measurements establishing that 29 of the city’s quietest days in the last three years occurred during the pandemic.
In their article “The Coronavirus Quieted City Noise. Listen to What’s Left,” Quoctrung Bui and Emily Badger report that the NYU findings reflect what is happening to the urban soundscape worldwide. London researchers have found “consistently lower decibel levels at every London location.” Similarly, researchers in other parts of the world are also finding lower readings. In Nova Scotia, “the noise of cars and airplanes no longer drowns out the rustle of leaves and wind.” Yet, they report, neighbor to neighbor complaints are not down, as intrusive sounds from neighbors may even be more disturbing during this stressful time of quarantine.
The changed soundcape can also alter people’s perception of the sounds around them, they add. For example, the article notes that neighborhood sidewalk chatter which was not disturbing before the pandemic may be bothersome now because people are viewing this chatter as coming from people who are not practicing the required social distancing. Birds are being reported as louder but are probably not singing louder; before the pandemic their sounds were barely heard amongst the surrounding din. I was quoted as noting that people reported that they missed the honking horns and the sounds of the traditional New York City. But I quickly added that what they really miss is their former lives. Dr. Bello summed it up nicely when he said the current sounds of New York City are associated with an aching city and “[i]t’s not a healthy sound in my mind.”
Mark Cartwright of NYU suggests that being able to capture the sounds of city without the jackhammers, honking, commerce, etc. might provide city government with a baseline so that it can then regulate what sounds could be added to the baseline to provide a city with less noise pollution. I concur with him in that the opportunity to think about our aural environment at this time might encourage us to come up with ways to reduce the disturbing din while not changing the pleasant sounds of our urban environment.
Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press. In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.