Peace and Quiet

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.

Sometimes we need to put up with noise

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Sometimes people have to put up with noise. This fun piece from the Atlas Obscura folks describes a noisy rooster on the French vacation island of Ile d’Oléron. Summer visitors filed a noise complaint with the local authorities, who ruled in the rooster’s favor.

Corrine Dessau, the rooster’s owner, commented that “[t]here’s always been noise in the countryside: frogs, tractors, and, yes, roosters. When you’re in the countryside, you accept the noises of the countryside. And when you’re in the city, you accept the noises of the city. If you don’t like the noise where you are, don’t stay there.”

I would disagree about urban noise. Much if not most of urban noise can be quieted.

But in the countryside, a rooster’s wake up call is part of the charm, and visitors should get used to it.

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.

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.

People in PA fed up with fireworks

Photo credit: Steve Morgan licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Reading this report from WNEP television about Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania residents who have had enough of fireworks displayed, I learned that Wilkes-Barre is called the Diamond City. Who knew? Wilkes-Barre got that nickname in the 19th century, when it was a center of anthracite coal mining. But now, apparently, Wilkes-Barre is known for something else.

Fireworks have long been available in Pennsylvania, from where they are often illegally imported into communities where they are banned, especially New York City. In 2017, Act 43 repealed and replaced the Fireworks Act of 1939, allowing adults to buy and set off Roman candles, bottle rockets, and firecrackers.

This year’s July 4th celebration in Wilkes-Barre started early and continued after the holiday ended. Local police received more than 300 noise complaints. Community groups and the mayor are fed up, and are moving to have Act 43 repealed.

Kudos to the community groups and Wilkes-Barre’s mayor. Repealing Act 43 won’t just benefit the citizens of Pennsylvania, New Yorkers would be pleased to see fireworks sanity restored there, too.

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 and pollution increase as countries, states reopen

Photo credit: Ion Ceban @ionelceban from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This New York Times article reports that gaseous pollutant emissions are surging as countries and states reopen economic activity.

We have covered several reports about the coronavirus lockdowns causing noise and vibration levels to decrease, but I haven’t yet seen a report about the effect of reopening on noise levels.

I wrote about the eerie nighttime quiet of a curfew beginning at 1 p.m. in the afternoon. A little noise may be reassuring, or at least familiar, but too much noise is a problem.

My own observation is that in the west Los Angeles area, noise levels are definitely increasing. Automobile, truck, and motorcycle exhaust noise can be heard day and night. And there are more airplanes in the sky.

It will be interesting to see what happens with noise levels as the economy reopens more.

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.

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.

Turn down the volume

Photo credit: Nicholas Githiri from Pexels

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

Turning down the volume” by Maria Papadodimitraki (translated from Greek by Antigone Debbaut) is another article addressing the need to pay more attention to the harmful impacts of noise pollution on our physical and mental health. What especially drew my attention to this article was its introductory statement: “Noise pollution is a form of violence.” Those words were said by Voula Pagagianni, an educator and president of the Hellenic Young Children’s University.

Papadodimitraki supports the need to reduce noise by citing the large body of research on the adverse effects of noise on our hearing, cardiovascular system, sleep, cognitive performance, and overall psychological well being. She also includes references that man-made noises harm other species as well, e.g. marine organisms, birds.

Yet, she reports some good news, too. Namely, that cities such as Stockhom, Vienna, and Zurich are taking actions to reduce noise pollution. This includes installing acoustic fencing and soundproof windows in apartments exposed to high levels of noise, traffic calming measures on roads, promotion of bicycle use and introducing electric buses. But as Athanasios Trochidis, emeritus professor, civil engineering, at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, tells Papadodimitraki, “[p]erhaps the best way to deal with noise pollution is prevention—to not make noise.”

On another positive note, the author points out that the European Union has set sound level standards aimed to “counteract the negative impact of noise pollution on health.” She adds, unfortunately, that the U.S. “has much higher—some would say lower standards” when referring to what would be considered tolerable noise exposures. This should not be surprising to the anti-noise advocates in the U.S. long concerned about the high sound level standards set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The article’s strong introduction is followed with a strong concluding quote by Professor Nikos Barkas, who says:

Noise pollution is a factor in the deterioration of our quality of life. This is why it is crucial that we change our attitude to noise pollution and take action to address the problem.

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.