City Living

The sound of cities before and during the pandemic

Photo credit: Jonathan licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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

Stuart Fowkes, a UK based artist, has been mapping out the sounds of cities since 2014. I would guess that he never imagined that a worldwide pandemic would provide him with the opportunity to hear “lost” sounds in a city that had been overtaken by increasing noise pollution. He comments about the return of the sounds of birds, insects, and other sounds of nature. His recordings of sounds during the past six years from cities around the world has resulted in a map featuring a wide variety of sounds. His recording project titled “Future Cities” features the sounds of several years ago but now includes the sounds during the pandemic.

In writing about the sounds of cities, Fowkes recognizes that the increased traffic and noise from construction sites, as well as the activities associated with tall buildings, has resulted in environmental stress which can adversely affect health. Furthermore, according to Fowkes, noise has also drowned out certain sounds that defined specific cities. For example, the sounds of the bells ringing at Westerkerk church in Amsterdam at one time played an important role in helping “people mark out kind of where they need to be at any given time.” He fears that these sounds that characterized specific cities will be lost after the pandemic passes.

Fowkes hopes that his project will bring attention to the important role auditory elements play in defining cities and as a result lead to noise reduction becoming a significant goal in future urban policy decisions. With noise having drowned out sounds that at one time were identified with specific cities, I wonder how many people can remember what these sounds were.

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.

London deploys noise cameras to combat “antisocial supercar drivers”

Photo credit: Adrian Dorobantu from Pexels

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

The BBC reports that “[m]ore than a hundred people have been threatened with fines after London’s first noise cameras were set up to combat antisocial supercar drivers.”  Drivers who have been using Knightsbridge streets as racetracks will first receive warnings but second offenses will carry fines. The cameras identify cars exceeding a threshold of 74 decibels, and fines are imposed ranging from $130 to $3,230 (U.S. equivalent of pounds noted in article)–persistent offenders may have their vehicles taken. It should be noted that the Council member of Transport recognized that most drivers are considerate.

In an earlier post, I wrote about a group in Washington Heights and Inwood who has set up a task force to address the increase in noise levels in the community, including noise from drag racing. I have also spoken with other groups in New York City and Westchester that have noted an uptick in noisy vehicles racing down their streets. These groups, as well as many other New Yorkers, would welcome legislation calling for noise cameras on their streets to combat noise that is increasing and detrimental to their health and well-being.

New York bill S.B. 9009, introduced by State Senator Andrew Gounardes, would increase fines for loud car and motorcycle exhaust systems and mufflers. This law would require police vehicles to be equipped with decibel meters to measure the sounds of passing vehicles and would issue violations in excess of decibel limits set by the law. The current law sets a fine of a maximum of $150 for after-market violations but this bill would increase the maximum fine to $1,000. Also, under the current law police officers are to determine whether noise is excessive, but under the proposed bill police officers would be equipped with decibel meters to measure the actual sound levels.

State Senator Gournades’ legislation clearly indicates an awareness of the hazards to health brought about by loud vehicle equipment as well as a desire to remedy this problem. But enforcement of legislation is key and enforcement of noise regulations often falls seriously short as underscored by New York State Comptroller DiNapoli’s 2018 report regarding the New York City’s Noise Code. I would suggest that New York State legislators look into the UK program and consider a pilot project to identify loud vehicles by cameras which might make enforcement easier, and, more importantly, curb a dreadful noise pollutant.

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.

COVID-19 and the city soundscape

Photo credit: Craig Adderley from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, and David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The Quiet Coalition’s Arline Bronzaft, PhD, wrote a very nice essay about COVID-19 and the city soundscape, which was published in New York City’s Our Town, the local paper for the Upper East Side neighborhood of Manhattan.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is known and published worldwide for her expertise and teaching on community noise. But noise is personal too, a cause. So she’s never lost sight of its impact on her own home town, New York City, where she has been an adviser to five mayors. Nor the effect it has on her own neighbors on the upper east side of Manhattan, even during the recent COVID lockdown that brought life to a standstill an an eery quiet punctuated only by the frightening sounds of ambulance and police sirens at any hour of the day or night.

In her essay, Dr. Bronzaft notes that sound and noise received a great deal of attention during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic. In the absence of the usual hustle and bustle of noisy New York City, she writes:

There was talk about hearing and seeing more birds; not being awakened by overhead jets in the early morning hours; not being subjected to loud construction noises; and no music from nearby bars. However, an increase in loud ambulance sirens disturbed our ears and upset our minds because this meant more people were likely suffering from COVID-19.

She goes on to discuss possible future outcomes as urban activities return to normal, and expresses the hope that everyone–including city officials–will remember, when normality returns, what this period of calm and quiet was like.

Dr. Bronzaft’s piece dovetails very nicely with an editorial by Dr. Antonella Radicchi in a special issue of Cities & Health about sound and the healthy city.

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.

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.

Sound and the healthy city

Image © Marcus Grant 2018

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This wonderful and thought-provoking editorial from Antonella Radicchi and colleagues appears in the special issue of Cities & Health about sound and the healthy city. Dr. Radicchi was the lead guest editor for this issue and the Quiet Coalition acts as special issue partner.

One of the many things I was reminded of reading the editorial is that although urban noise has serious and well-recognized health consequences, a broader perspective on the urban soundscape is needed.

Perhaps my single-minded focus on decibel levels is misplaced? After all, I like the sounds of birdsong or fountains or many street entertainers just as much as anyone else.

As Dr. Radicchi and her colleagues write:

We hope that through a soundscape approach we can encourage fresh thinking about urban sound, including how people perceive and relate to their sonic environments, and show how sound can contribute to health. We believe that this approach can provide a collaborative platform for sound artists, sound technologists, urbanists and local people to work together with public health and create healthier urban environments.

They certainly encouraged some fresh thinking and self reflection for me!

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.

Noisy and dangerous helicopters assault NYC skies

This photo is in the public domain

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

Transportation noise has been recognized as a hazard to health and well-being. This includes noise from aircraft, including helicopters, as well as from nearby roads and rail. We, indeed, have the research that underscores the adverse impact of helicopter noise, as discussed in Julia Vitullo-Martin’s article in the Gotham Gazette, on residents who have to deal with “[t]he incessant low-flying air traffic tormenting parks and neighborhoods.”

While tourists view helicopter flights over New York City as fun and providing the opportunity to take some wonderful photographs, the people who live in areas over which the helicopters fly judge one of the frequent sightseeing companies, FlyNYON, as not only loud but dangerous. Vitullo-Martine writes that the company is known for “evading federal safety regulations by classifying its doors-off tours as photographic in purpose rather than for tourists.” With modern technology now allowing individuals to track helicopter flights, whether commuter or sightseeing, Vitullo-Martin reports that citizens have the data to establish that rules of flying are not always observed.

New Jersey residents, Vitullo-Martin notes, also complain about the intrusive helicopters, but the two states have not yet worked toward coming up with a solution to the noise problem.

One answer to resolve the issue of dangerous, noisy helicopters is through appropriate legislation at the city, state, and federal levels. Several New York City congresspeople have co-sponsored the Improving Helicopter Safety Act of 2019, which would “prohibit non-essential helicopters from flying in covered airspace of any city” with a very large population and a huge population density. This would definitely include New York City. But nothing is happening in Congress regarding this bill.

In New York City, legislation was introduced in July “to amend New York City’s administrative code to reduce noise by chartered helicopters.” I checked with one of the sponsors of the proposed bill and was told it was put on hold, largely due to all the attention being paid to the COVID-19 pandemic at this time.

Until any level of government is willing to act, New Yorkers will have to continue to live with the noisy and dangerous helicopters flying above their heads.

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.

Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast reaches big audiences with well-told stories about noise

Photo credit: Magda Ehlers from Pexels

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

Sound designer, Dallas Taylor produces a wonderful podcast called Twenty Thousand Hertz that is a joy to listen to. So far he has produced 45 episodes that cover a broad range of “stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds.”

Recently he teamed up with TED and Apple Podcasts so now he’s reaching big audiences, which is terrific for those of us who are concerned about the effects of noise on health and environment.

A friend urged me to listen to an episode called “City That Never Sleeps,” in which Taylor interviews a New York City-based writer who discovered that her perpetual anxiety was the result of noise exposure, so she took some simple precautions that others may want to consider. The prodcasts includes a couple of compilations of “nature sounds” that you might want to bookmark. Enjoy!

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.

On balancing outdoor dining and neighborhood peace

Photo credit: Eden, Janine and Jim licensed under CC BY 2.0

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

Recognizing the difficulties restaurants have faced during this horrific pandemic, New York City has provided increased outside dining spaces for these restaurants. Mayor Bill de Blasio stated that “[t]he success of our neighborhood establishments is central to our entire city’s success.” Acknowledging that complaints will follow these outdoor dining activities, however, he set up an office to deal with potential complaints. This office entitled Mediating Establishment and Neighbor Disputes (MEND NYC) will be overseen by the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings and the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife at the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.

Undoubtedly, one of the complaints that will be brought to MEND NYC will center on the intrusions of loud sounds from these outdoor eating establishments on nearby apartments and homes. It is hoped that nearby neighbors and restaurant owners will be able, with the assistance of MEND NYC, to participate in a mediation process that will resolve complaints. While noise has been a major complaint in New York City, we need to understand that at this time with an overall increase in stress in our city’s residents, there may be less tolerance of nearby noises intruding in their lives.

Thus, I have to raise several questions at this time. Will MEND NYC have someone on its staff familiar with the noise issue in New York City? Will that person know that citizens calling 311 in the past have reported that their noise complaints have not led to satisfying resolutions? The 2018 noise report produced by Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli supports these concerns raised by callers to 311.

Noise impacts on an individual’s mental and physical health and well-being and its impacts are exacerbated during a time of added stress. Will there be a psychologist on the staff of MEND NYC who has the appropriate background to assist mediators as they work with individuals who are being adversely affected by noise? Restaurant owners are under much stress financially and they too would benefit from the experience of a psychologist.

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection is an agency that deals with noise complaints. Will someone from the DEP be part of MEND NYC? Will MEND NYC provide data, easily accessible to New Yorkers, that will give them some idea of how successful its mediation program has been? Data reflecting success will give New Yorkers greater confidence in the program.

The goals of MEND NYC should be applauded. My questions about the program are being raised to facilitate the attainment of these goals.

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.

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.