Experts envision post-COVID cities without noise and pollution

Car-free street in New York City during lockdown | Photo credit: Jim Griffin has dedicated this photograph to the public domain

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Menios Constantinou, Architecture & Deisgn, writes about how the COVID pandemic and lockdown is giving us the opportunity to envision our cities without the twin scourges of noise and pollution. Constantinou interviewed Professor Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, a professorial fellow at the MacKillop Institute for Health Research and a leading environmental epidemiologist, who talked about how he noticed at the beginning of the lockdown that he could hear birds singing as the traffic noise had greatly diminished. Nieuwenhuijsen’s observation led him to reimagine what cities could be.

And he’s not the only one. Nieuwenhuijsen told Constantinou that “[w]hat you see in places like Milan is the policymakers taking advantage of the current situation, and using it as an opportunity to rethink how they plan their cities.” This is also happening elsewhere, with more than a dozen European nations backing a green post-pandemic recovery plan. The money can only be spent once, Nieuwenhuijsen adds, so “we might as well do it in the way that will save more lives in the long term, and create a more just, sustainable and liveable society.”

I’ve been wondering if this flashback we’ve been living in—flashback to what life may have been like before the industrial revolution—would produce any permanent changes when it’s over.

It’s a tough question to answer as we know so little about what happened after previous pandemics. For instance, the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918 was a social cost of the WWI mobilization–hat flu began with animal to human transmission in Kansas, spread east to Army recruitment centers, travelled abroad, exploded there and then returned to the U.S. in the tragically deadly second wave. And, of course the great plagues in Europe during the 14th to 16th centuries continued episodically for over 200 years because they didn’t have a theory of viral or bacterial disease or know they’re transmitted. That one, of course, then travelled across the Atlantic to North and South America with the Conquistadors and their soldiers and crews—ultimately destroying millions of lives and ending lost-established, indigenous civilizations.

This time we have the opportunity to learn from it. And there are encouraging signs that urban planners are embracing the idea that quieter, cleaner cities are possible, and what’s more, they’re highly desirable. Will that spur an acceleration in interest among city planners and others in doing more to regain that which has been lost to pollution and noise?

We can only hope that what Professor Nieuwenhuijsen comments will be heeded everywhere!

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

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