City Living

NYC residents form task force against noise

Photo credit: Susan Sermoneta licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

Concerned about the rise in noise in Inwood and Washington Heights, and supported by the largest number of noise-related complaints filed this year to 311 by the Manhattan community board that encompasses these neighborhoods, a group of residents formed a task force to address the noise in their community, e.g. street noises, residential noises, loud fireworks, and noisy vehicles. These two groups, named WAHI and Inwood for Respectful Decibel Levels, at their press conference, called on city agencies, elected public officials and their Community Board 12 members to support them in their efforts.

Over forty years ago, I had conducted study on the impact of elevated train noise on children’s classroom learning at their school in Inwood and found that the reading scores of children attending classes exposed to the train noise were significantly lower than children on the quiet side of the building. The results of this study were published in an academic journal but also shared with the community residents and their public officials. Working with the community and their elected officials, we were able to get the Transit Authority to lessen the noise on the tracks and the Board of Education to place sound absorbing materials in the noisy classrooms. A study following these two abatements found that children on both sides of the building were now reading at the same level.

Thus, it was not surprising that the Inwood/Washington Heights group would ask for my assistance to combat the noise they are now experiencing in their neighborhood. The fact that the community had played a role in lessening the noises at a district school earlier has given them confidence as they move forward to reduce the noise levels in their community today. The community also knows that today there is far more research demonstrating that noise is harmful to both our mental and physical health.

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.

Noise returns to New York City

Photo credit: Chris Schippers from Pexels

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

When the pandemic hit New York City in full force in late March and then worked its way into April and May, city residents began to speak of a positive result of the lockdown—the city sounded quieter. There were far fewer construction sounds, car honks, and gatherings of people on corners. Instead of overhead jet blasts, people in Queens could hear birdsong. But the increased ambulance sirens were painful reminders that illness had befallen this city and cities around the world.

It is now August and the quiet has passed, according to this New York Magazine article by Justin Davidson. Davidson writes that New York City is getting loud again, and he welcomes the return of intrusive sounds because they indicate that people are now going back to work and construction and repairs of buildings are no longer on hold. Davidson believes the quiet that hovered over the city during lockdown wasn’t really pleasurable. The evening streets lacked sounds of laughter, music from nearby restaurants, and even disagreements between people passing by, Davidson writes, while acknowledging that there were loud sounds at 7:00 p.m. celebrating the wonderful hospital workers tending to the sick.

Now Davidson finds himself bothered by nearby generators and its pulsations, which he says are “nudging my heartbeat to accelerate, like an IV drip of bad news.” His article cites research that demonstrates that such noise can affect mental and physical well-being, and notes, citing Emily Thompson’s “The Soundscape of Modernity,” that noise was one of the outcomes of urbanization. Yet, he found that when he visited a rural area, he encountered a number of noises in that environment as well.

This article also presents the opinion of critic Kate Wagner, which appeared in The Atlantic, who believes responses to sound speak to our social and political views in that fights over noise may be fights over “power and control.” Newcomers to certain quieter communities may advocate for more night life in the area while others moving into the city from the suburbs want a quieter town. Wagner, according to Davidson, believes that attempts to “shush” a city amounts to the “imposition of suburban values on an urban context.”

Davidson concludes his article by aching for the return of the sounds that characterized New York City before the pandemic. Then, he says, we will know that the city has “healed.”

While I, too, want to hear the wonderful sounds of the city again—children laughing, baseball fans shouting, and sounds of crowds leaving theaters and waiting for autographs of their favorite actors—I also believe that we should continue to advocate for the lessening of the din, e.g. lower construction tool sounds, less car honking, and the like.

A less noisy New York City will still be an exciting, vibrant city and a healthier one as well.

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.

Paris takes on bikers’ noise

Photo credit: Carlos ZGZ has dedicated this photo to the public domain

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

As we have written about several times, one unexpected result of the COVID-19 lockdowns worldwide was a reduction in noise–in cities, in the water, even in terms of measured seismic activity. As life has started to return to something approaching normal, noise levels are increasing.

In Paris, one cause of increased noise is motorcycles with altered exhausts. As this BBC report shows, one motorcycle riding through Paris at night can disturb the sleep of thousands of people.

In response, the police are enforcing motorcycle quiet laws, and the city is developing an automated noise monitoring system.

Maybe other cities around the world can do the same?

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Noise complaints on the rise in NYC

Photo credit: Dan Nguyen licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

New York City, the city that has long been known to be noisy, is even noisier, according to an article by Shaye Weaver. Weaver writes that since February of this year, noise complaints in the city have increased “an astonishing 279 percent.” Firework noise was the overwhelming complaint in June, but complaints about loud music and parties led the list overall. The Bronx had the most complaints, with Staten Island registering the fewest.

Weaver states that “2020 has been a year like no other.” The pandemic has indeed changed the city and the lives of the residents in this city as well as people worldwide, in many ways, and 2020 will be known from now on as the “Year of the Pandemic.”

Weaver’s article doesn’t mention how the New York agencies that deal with noise complaints, mainly the Department of Environmental Protection and the police department, have been responding to the 311 noise complaint calls that have been directed to them. As someone who hears from New Yorkers who have not had their noise complaints resolved, I can say that I have had increased calls about noise in communities. My callers have reported to me that loud parties are being held near their homes and apartment buildings and there has been no interest from police or public officials to address their complaints. I have also been hearing from individuals who are organizing groups in their areas to give them a stronger voice when they approach public officials and community boards, and I have offered advice and asked to be kept informed about the activities to lessen the din.

I thank Weaver for her timely article and hope that she would do a follow-up focusing on the agencies responsible for addressing noise to ask how they are dealing with this large increase in noise complaints. We have laws on the books that have been written to curtail noise but unless they are enforced, they have little, if any, value.

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.

How to deal with noisy neighbors during COVID

Photo credit: Adrian Black licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

The subtitle of Kelsey Mulvey’s article in Real Simple on how to deal with noisy neighbors rang out to me: “Put the peace back in peace and quiet.” Noisy neighbors have long been a problem for people living in both private homes and apartment dwellings, but Mulvey notes that the stress of working from home during the pandemic may increase one’s need for greater quiet in the evening when one wants to relax. So how do we maintain the peace in an effort to seek quiet?

Mulvey’s article, based on advice from Erik Wheeler, a mediator at Accord Mediation in Vermont, focuses on how people can deal with noisy neighbors at a time when they are “on edge” and in need of advice that will not result in a screaming match or worse. He stresses that the individual making the noise may not be aware that sounds from their living space is intruding on a neighbor nearby, the person bothered by the sound must be ready to explain why some quiet is needed, and he or she must speak in a voice that is friendly and polite. Remember, Wheeler advises, have a conversation with your neighbor, not a confrontation. In New York City, some managing agents and landlords have sent out memos to dwellers urging them to make less noise during these difficult times which would facilitate requests to neighbors to “tone it down.”

I would also like to point out that the pandemic has increased the likelihood that neighbors working from home will experience noises from neighbors during the day that they had not heard before because they were at their workplaces. Then the pandemic came and those daytime noises, e.g. very young children running around and playing, were being heard for the first time. That is, there is a need to explain to neighbors that sounds from their dwellings are making it difficult to work.

On the other hand, people who are working from home for the first time have to realize that sounds they are now hearing during the day did not intrude on others before this pandemic. Now, their neighbors are being asked to alter established patterns of behaviors, and the behavior of their children. This will take even more understanding on the complainant’s part as well as patience.

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.

The urban soundscape during COVID

Photo credit: Life Matters from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This thoughtful essay from Kate Wagner, writing for The Atlantic, discusses the push-pull forces affecting the urban soundscape. Wagner lives in Washington, D.C. She contrasts the quiet of her neighborhood during the COVID-19 lockdown with the noise of a Black Lives Matter demonstration near the White House.

With a background in acoustics, she had measured sounds a while ago. She noted a 6 decibel decrease in daytime noise. It was as quiet during the day as it had been at 2 a.m. She then goes on to discuss the tension between the desire of many for urban quiet, so they can hear the birds and not be woken from sleep, with the needs of commuters, delivery workers, etc., and juxtaposed with understanding the need for noise during demonstrations.

I am aware of research showing that the effects of urban noise fall disproportionately on poor populations and on people of color, but hadn’t thought about the inescapable fact that these impacts are not random, but are the end result of decades of government policy decisions. As Wagner notes, noise is stressful and causes adverse health effects.

We can hope that one of the outcomes of the current social turmoil will be a quieter, more peaceful, and more equitable world for all.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Experimental device may cancel noise entering through windows

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

David Waldstein, the New York Times, writes about an experimental device that cancels noise that enters open windows. Waldstein notes that “[w]ith any sound, the best way to reduce it is at the source,” noting that the window is often the source of noise “because most noise enters a room that way.” He then introduces us to the device, developed by researchers in Singapore, that can be placed in a window to reduce incoming sounds.

While individuals living with traffic noises would probably welcome windows that could reduce sounds by ten decibels, as the article claims, my guess is they would advocate for less noise coming from the true sources: aircraft and road traffic. These same people still want to enjoy the outside parts of their homes as well as the interior.

The experimental device borrows from techniques used in noise-canceling headphones. Small speakers are placed in an opened window that emit sound waves that correspond to incoming sounds, which they then neutralize. Noise cancellation can be done for the sounds from overhead planes and traffic, but not for all possible incoming sounds, like firecrackers, car horns, or loud conversations. To include a broader range of sound frequencies would require larger speakers and larger windows.

An added benefit of the device, the researchers claim, is that the window can remain open. Because the city of Singapore doesn’t experience cold weather, since people want  to reduce their use of air conditioners, this is most desirable. But how would this work out in cities that have to keep their windows closed during the colder months of the year? The researchers do point out that their work is still in an experimental stage and that there are issues that they have to address before implementing their device in field studies.

Let me add that one complaint that has been voiced is that the device is not that attractive. But, as Waldstein concludes, “if it can neutralize the sound of the jet taking off from Runway 13 at LaGuardia, that is (soft) music to the ear.” Well, at least during the warmer months in New York City.

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.

Lockdown was a boon for science

Photo credit: Kwh1050 licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

As I have written before on Silencity, the COVID-19 lockdown has given city dwellers around the world the opportunity to hear a landscape with less road traffic, fewer overhead jets, and a slowdown in constructions sounds. Yes, one sound was heard more frequently – birdsong. But on June 22, New York City is entering Phase 2 and the “older, less welcoming sounds” could be returning.

Interestingly, the quieter pandemic environment has given the Quiet Project in the UK the opportunity to map out the lower decibel levels that have occurred during the lockdown, writes Philip Ball of The Guardian. In addition to actual sound recordings, the Quiet Project has asked the public to reflect on how the changed soundscape has affected them. According to Lindsay McIntyre, the director of the company involved in this project, “[e]veryone I speak to has got an opinion on how the changes in noise makes them feel.” For example, as I have noted in earlier writings, some people actually miss the more traditional urban sounds, but what they really missed was what their lives were before the pandemic.

The researchers involved in the Quiet Project hope to use their data in ways that may result, for example, in having planners factor in more “tranquil areas” in cities as we move forward. Seismologists are especially interested in how the pandemic altered human activities. With less human activity, and the accompanying noises they are responsible for, seismologists can detect small earthquakes and this information can tell more about the “state of stress and movement in the crust.” Oceanographers, concerned about the impact of low-frequency noise from ship engines on the communications of marine life, found the change in ocean sounds during the pandemic provided the opportunity to study ship factors that harm marine animals. This finding could “help plan ocean transportation so it is less disruptive to marine life.”

With the pandemic resulting in less noise, scientists were given the opportunity to collect the kind of data that may help them find ways to keep our planet quieter in the near future for all its inhabitants. Out of adversity, can come creativity!

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.

Lockdown lets us hear the birds, and lets them hear each other

Photo credit: Pratikxox from Pexels

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

The New York Times recently had an article that featured the birds of New York City. It notes that with the pandemic quieting the usual din of New York City, birds can now lift their voices. It is not only their voices that have been lifted, but their visibility as well. Readers are introduced to thirteen species of birds, some of whom have been commonly present in the city but others who are rarely present. In the past, birds have called out to us but we were less likely to hear them. Now, we can both see and hear these beautiful birds. This pandemic has occurred during the spring when birds are at their peak in the city and so New Yorkers, at a time when there is so much despair and anxiety in our lives, have been given the opportunity to listen to sounds that are so joyous to the ears.

That birds have served to brighten the lives of New Yorkers at this time is underscored by a second Times’ article by Jennifer Ackerman, who writes that not only are more people noticing birds but “[t]he lack of people is indeed being noticed by the wildlife.” With less noise, birds can more easily converse with each other and be more aware of harmful predators.

Ackerman adds that being more exposed to birds may also make us more aware of a species that knows how to navigate the world “in tough times.” Most certainly, people will have to acquire new skills to deal with the obstacles they will be facing after the pandemic shutdown. One hopes that they will also remember the pleasure and comfort of the birdsong they have listened to and understand that noise is harmful to both humans and birds. Such memories may lead to a lessening of the overall din of this city. And that will benefit the city’s dwellers – both humans and birds.

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.

Good sounds during lockdown

Photo credit: Anthony Quintano licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

In contrast to Dr. Daniel Fink’s experience with the lack of sound during curfew, I have been experiencing good sounds at my apartment. Confined to my home, I cannot join the marches. So the marches have come to my home. I have stood on my terrace and have joined in by applauding the marchers as they pass my building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The sounds are voices from people of all ages and races calling for justice and the applause of nearby residents supporting their call.

It is on this same terrace each evening at seven that I join my neighbors in applauding the health care workers who are caring for those who are suffering from COVID-19.

The voices and applause are such pleasant sounds. They are music to my ears.

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.