City Living

Staying at home with noisy neighbors

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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

While complaints about outdoor noises such as those from construction and neighborhood pubs and bars have declined in New York City, neighbor-to-neighbor complaints have increased. In their article “Lockdown: Noisy neighbours are ruining my life,” Manish Pandey and Will Chalk similarly report that since the UK went into lockdown, individuals are complaining about their neighbors’ noises not giving them any “peace and quiet.” Pandey and Chalk queried 103 councils in the UK and those who responded reported a rise in neighbor-to-neighbor complaints.

Dan Sanders, the head of the Association of Noise Consultants in the UK, believes the rise in complaints is related to the fact that “so many people are spending a lot more time at home.” He could add that in many cases individuals are now working from home and noise intrusions could be especially disruptive. He goes on to suggest that talking to a neighbor should be the first step before filing a noise complaint. Under normal circumstances resolving noise complaints, through complaints to appropriate agencies, takes time and under the present circumstances, it would probably take longer.

However, we must not forget that neighbor-to-neighbor noise complaints have been a problem before the pandemic. “Neighbour/Neighbourhood Noise” is a chapter written by Val Weedon of the UK, a long-term advocate for a less noisy environment, in the book “Why Noise Matters.” In her chapter of the book, published in 2011, Weedon cites studies that show that neighbor noise has been a problem in the UK for decades.

This is also true in New York City and elsewhere. While neighbor to neighbor noise can be resolved through conversations amongst neighbors, as Sanders suggests, this does not happen that frequently. Such resolutions depend on people respecting the right of others. And while Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” stated that she “…always depended on the kindness of strangers,” I would have to say that individuals exposed to noisy neighbors will too frequently have to depend on the law to protect their right to some quiet.

In New York City and the UK, too often one finds that very few violations are issued in response to noise complaints to the appropriate authorities charged with enforcing noise ordinances. Thus, many individuals have to seek other means to resolve noise complaints. Remember, noise is a hazard to one’s mental and physical health.

In New York City, as a member of GrowNYC overseeing its noise activities, I have been asked many times to help with noise complaints as have the city’s public officials. I assume we will continue coping with neighbor-to-neighbor noise complaints after this horrific pandemic but, maybe after the difficulties we have all experienced these past few months, urban dwellers will express some of the kindness towards others in line with Blanche DuBois’ frequently quoted words.

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 the lockdown allows us to hear nature

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

Dr. Richard leBrasseur, who studies the differences between urban and rural landscapes and the influences of these landscapes on human development and behavior, concludes his article “How COVID-19 shutdowns are allowing us to hear more of nature” by asking urban dwellers to go out onto their porch or balcony to listen to the “sounds of nature.” I live on the Upper East Side in Manhattan and did not need to go onto my terrace to hear the sounds of birds this morning. They awakened me at 6:40 a.m. as they did a few days ago. What a wonderful way to wake up on a street that is usually bustling with traditional loud urban sounds.

Dr. leBrasseur reports on sound measurements of urban and nature sounds taken before the pandemic and then after the pandemic changed our soundscapes. In his February readings in Truro, Nova Scotia, he recorded the sounds of cars, planes, barking dogs, etc. which were rated quite high on the decibel scale used to measure the loudness of sounds. But in April he was recording nature sounds in these same locations which were considerably lower on the decibel scale. While Dr. leBrasseur acknowledges that some people enjoy urban soundscapes, he points to the research that has found that these sounds can still have a negative effect on our health. On the other hand, he cites the research that has demonstrated the benefits of natural sounds to our health. These include “reduced heart rate, reduced levels of anxiety, increased positive emotions, overall wellbeing and increased productivity.”

Urban dwellers generally have to travel to quieter areas to enjoy the sounds of nature and reap their benefits. I wonder if the natural sounds that they are experiencing now can indeed bring them the comfort that is traditionally associated with such sounds. I ask this because the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has elicited feelings of stress and anxiety. Additionally, many urban dwellers report today that they miss the city sounds that were at one time viewed as disturbing. One cannot blame them for essentially “missing their old lives.”

For now, I agree with Dr. leBrasseur when he says we should go out and listen to nature in our neighborhoods. “It won’t last.”

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 complaints continue, but source changes

Photo credit: Daria Shevtsova from Pexels

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

In an earlier post on noise complaints, I referred to an article that said nonresidential noise complaints about noises from outside of homes, especially from construction, have gone down in New York City due to the lockdown. By contrast that article noted that residential neighbor-to-neighbor complaints held steady.

Now, several weeks later, Sankalp Gulati in his article “Tracking post-pandemic normalcy: noise complaints in NYC” reports that commercial noise complaints–especially from bars and pubs–“have slumped” during the lockdown, whereas residential noise complaints, e.g. loud television, loud music, loud talking and banging, have increased. This can be readily understood in that people are staying home, both during the day and in the evening. And, as the article notes, many people are playing loud music.

Gulati based his article on the noise complaints registered with 311. I don’t know if he is presently monitoring noise complaints to 311 but if he is, I would like him to know that New Yorkers were told two weeks ago not to call 311 with “traditional” complaints because the operators were focusing on the coronavirus pandemic. He goes on to say that examining the data “during the recovery phase of the pandemic” might be an indicator that New Yorkers were returning to their usual “social behavior and routines.”

I would hope that Gulati would continue his interest in noise and collect the data on noise complaints during the recovery phase of the pandemic and provide us with his findings.

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.

April 29 is International Noise Awareness Day

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Wednesday, April 29, 2020, is the 25th anniversary of International Noise Awareness Day. Twenty-five years isn’t quite as big an anniversary as fifty years, e.g, for Earth Day this year, but it is still an accomplishment. The Center for Hearing and Communication started observing this day to encourage people to do something about bothersome noise.

One of the small silver linings worldwide as a result of lockdowns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has been the marked decrease in traffic as people shelter in place, with corresponding decreases in almost all types of transportation noise. Urban dwellers report they can hear birdsong. Of course, when everyone is home, noise from a neighbor who is also at home can be much more annoying than when it only occurs while one is at work.

In general, a quieter world is a healthier world for all living things.  And I will be observing the day by going for my morning walk and listening for the call of the neighborhood’s Cooper’s hawk.

What will you do to celebrate International Noise Awareness Day?

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.

Will the pandemic teach us to listen once again?

Photo credit: Quinn Dombrowski licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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

For an individual who has focused more on her auditory receptor than her visual receptor for the past forty years, I spent much of my time convincing others to pay as much attention to their sonic environment as they do their visual surroundings. I have urged people to recognize the dangers of loud sounds and noise to their hearing and their overall mental and physical health. Similarly, I write about the pleasures of the good sounds around us. The last page of my children’s book “Listen to the Raindrops” (illustrated by Steven Parton) reads:

Moms, dads, girls and boys join together to stop the noise, So that we can one and all, Forever hear the raindrops fall.

As the years passed, I have had more success with my efforts, but now with the coronavirus pandemic it appears that many people who paid less attention to their aural environment than their visual have now awakened to the stimuli that reach into their ears and then impact on their experiences. In “Hopeful birdsong, foreboding sirens: A pandemic in sound,” Leanne Italie writes:

The coronavirus has drastically transformed the world in sound. The routine cacophony of daily life has calmed, lending more weight to the noises left behind. And in those mundane sounds, now so unexpectedly bared, many have found comfort, hope and dread.

Italie goes on to explain how the sounds she is now tuned in to affect the listeners emotionally. Ambulance sirens break ones heart, but the balcony singing in Europe and the applause and whooping at 7 p.m. in New York, saying thank you to our medical care workers, is viewed as uniting people. The increased silence has made people more aware of the snippets of sound in the street when they venture out, Italie writes. She also writes about the visually impaired who depend on the sounds around them to navigate their streets. The article ends with a call to keep listening.

I strongly agree that we should keep listening as I have said for all these years. Become aware of the too loud health-damaging sounds, e.g. aircraft, rail and road noises and advocate to lessen them so that we can all appreciate the quiet that brings comfort as well as allowing us to forever hear the raindrops fall.

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.

Takeways from a silent pandemic

Photo credit: Hakan Tahmaz from Pexels

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

The Quiet Coalition co-founder Arline Bronzaft, PhD, was interviewed by Newsday a few days ago. The long-time researcher and noise activist known for her work on noise and its impact on children’s education that began 50 years ago hopes humans around the world will learn a big lesson from this locked-down quiet period.

We all need to listen to nature! The rest of nature—the nonhuman parts—have been trying to tell us something for a long time and we just haven’t been able to hear it: when the noise stops, so does much of the air pollution we accepted as “normal.” The sky is bluer now, the air is breathable and sweeter, and we can hear birds singing—all because the dirty industrial processes that generate most of the noise are at a standstill.

Once this is over, can we hang onto some of those benefits? Is there a way to seize this moment to figure out how to lead quieter, less stressful, less polluting lives?

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.

The pandemic has quieted the world

Photo credit: Atomicdragon136 licensed under CC BY 4.0

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

When I accessed the National Geographic article by Maya Wei-Haas, “These charts show how coronavirus has ‘quieted’ the world,” I wondered how much thought seismologists had paid to urban noise before the coronavirus. I knew that geology and related disciplines studied seismic noise and that the study for seismologists focused on the persistent vibrations of the ground and its relationship to earthquakes. However, as Wei-Haas writes, “[a]n added benefit of the reduction in background” is the opportunity to study phenomena not readily permissible in the “daily hubbub of human life.” With scientists tracking the reduction in noise in cities around the world, it turns out that seismologists may now be able to detect distant earthquakes that would have been missed in a noisier time.

Additionally, seismologists using fiber optic networks have able to study the lower traffic sounds in a way that may allow them to “manage movement of people in future crises.” That these scientists were able to apply their skills to analyze seismic data in a new way because of the unusual quiet has been a boost in morale, as they say their analysis “makes us feel busy in a positive and helpful way.”

As an individual long interested in lessening the din in our environment, I wonder if the scientists, who are excited about the opportunity to analyze data in a new way because of this unprecedented global quieting, will consider joining advocates for a less noisy environment. Studying the phenomena that are central to their area of research in a quieter world might lead to technological advancements that could be more protective of the earth and its many species.

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.

Coronavirus is changing NYC’s soundscape

This photo is in the public domain

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

I have been writing about sound and noise for the past forty years but I never envisioned that a virus pandemic in New York City would elicit a flurry of newspaper and magazine articles focused on sounds and noise. One example is Lindsay Zoladz’s piece, “Learning to Listen to, and Beyond, the Siren Call.” She notes that although she has lived near a hospital for the past five years, she “moved through life with breezy ignorance of the nearest hospital’s location.” But now she is overwhelmed by the “howl, yelp and bleat at all hours” of ambulance sirens. “I feel their presence in my body as an ever-increasing tightness in my shoulders and neck.”

Zoladz tells us about the group of Morningside Heights community residents who, subjected to the constant barrage of ambulance sirens, have been advocating for years to alter the present siren level to a less offensive sound used in Europe. Yet, New York City continued to use the more intrusive siren. With the coronavirus bringing more New Yorkers to hospitals in ambulances, and more people hearing these sirens, possibly after the pandemic these “new listeners,” including Ms. Zoladz, will join the Morningside Heights residents in their quest for the European “hi-lo siren.”

Though Zoladz admits that she has now tuned in to the sounds of the city that she had formerly not been as attentive to, she says that she misses “the comfort of the noise.”

I very well understand this comment because the sounds to which she was tuned in to before the virus struck reflected a much more “normal New York” for Zoladz and her fellow New Yorkers. Yet, I have to point out that some of these sounds adversely impacted on our health and well-being: rail, road and aircraft noises and nearby loud bar music in the early morning hours. On the other hand, we enjoyed the roars at our New York sports arenas and the laughter of children playing in our city’s parks.

And every evening at 7:00 p.m., I join in with my fellow New Yorkers to cheer and thank our City’s health care workers who are risking their lives to tend to the needs of their fellow New Yorkers but, unlike Zoladz, I do not consider these sounds “noise.” Noise is traditionally described as unwanted, intrusive, disruptive sounds but the sounds I hear from my terrace at 7:00 p.m. are welcoming and pleasant. They are sounds of thankfulness and appreciation.

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.

Kids learn about noise and classroom learning from the experts

Photo credit: K.W. Barrett licensed under CC BY 2.0

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

Noises from overhead aircraft, as well as nearby roads and rail tracks, impede learning in classrooms. Since I was the author of two of the early studies investigating the effects of outside noises on classroom learning, a group of students in Sharon, Massachusetts asked me to assist them with their research project which involved taking sound level measurements on the streets near three schools in Boston. They wanted to “see how much noise kids are actually exposed to when inside schools.” Dr. Erica Walker, Boston University School of Public Health, and Herb Singleton, Cross-Spectrum Acoustics, Inc. were their primary advisors.

In addition to reporting on the sound levels near the schools, the student team surveyed a group of elementary and middle school students to learn how aware they were of noises in their schools. After concluding that ”noise pollution impairs learning in children and affects schools in city neighborhoods,” the student team then made some recommendations to lessen noise in schools.

While the research conducted by these students supported earlier findings and recommendations to lessen noise in schools, this project is worth noting because these young students became aware of noise impacts on their own classroom learning and then decided to explore further how they could help reduce noise pollution in their town’s schools. Hopefully, these students will continue their interest in the harmful effects of noise and will join efforts to reduce noise in our overall environment. Their conclusion–“But the best solution is…Being Noise Aware”–makes me think they will.

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.

 

UK research shows trees help quiet your neighborhood

Photo credit: Markus Spiske from Pexels

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

Ever wonder if trees actually help create quiet neighborhoods? Lots of people assume that if they plant a hedge or a row of shrubs that will help control noise. Professional noise control experts usually say, “no that doesn’t work.” But the UK’s BBC reported recently on some research showing that trees—particularly larches and conifers—actually help screen out noise.

The researchers tested 76 samples from 13 different tree species. Co-author Jian Kang, University College London, said that “[b]eside emphasising the effects of vision and shade, urban greening should be considered as well to achieve noise reduction during propagation.”

Here’s the catch–it’s not the trees’ leaves that are performing that service, it’s their bark. In other words, the noise they help control is actually noise traveling horizontally, like road traffic noise. They won’t do much at all for aircraft noise.

Since it’s the trees’ bark that’s performing the service, trees need to be planted pretty closely together to offer much real shielding from noise. Of course, trees also provide other kinds of relief: they screen out visual distractions like passing vehicles, nosy neighbors, etc., and they provide shade from hot sun in the summertime. So if what you really want is to have a quiet, pleasant front or back yard, do two things: put up a solid wall to stop the noise and other intrusions–wooden boards fitted tightly together will do–then put a row of trees or a hedge between you and the fence.

I lived for three and a half decades in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and even though it’s home to two universities, Harvard and MIT, it’s an intense urban environment with
an incredible amount of urban noise. I have had an eight-foot-high board fence on all sides of a relatively small property (houses in Cambridge are spaced pretty closely together).
That wall provided privacy, security, and a measure of solitude, even when we could hear noise on the other side of it.

One subsequently famous architect, Philip Johnson, built himself a simple, private house when he was a grad student in 1940 (he had a lot of money and it was his thesis project). He started by building a 10 foot high wall right at the property line that ran all the way around the property. Into the wall he inserted two tightly fitted, locking, windowless doors one at the front, one at the side. Then inside the fenced enclosure, he divided the whole lot into a flat-roofed indoor area and an open garden separating them with a glass wall that enabled wide open views of the garden from any place inside the house.

Simple, elegant, actually quite remarkable. That’s how you achieve solitude and privacy in an urban area! The house still stands today. In other words, wooden boards work even better than trees if you really want to screen out the noise and bustle of the city! Put in some trees for shade and green space and you’re done!

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.