Public health

A Pocket Guide to Soundwalking

By Antonella Radicchi, PhD, Steering Committee Member, The Quiet Coalition

I’m pleased to share “A Pocket Guide to Soundwalking,” my essay on soundwalking written especially for newcomers to soundwalking, such as architects, city planners, and policy makers who are interested embracing a holistic and human-centered approach to “city sense and city design.” But my guide is also dedicated to anyone interested in learning about soundwalks, their purposes, how they are designed, and how they are performed.

In the words of Hildegard Westerkamp, a composer and musician who, since the Sixties, has contributed to the definition and spread of soundwalking, a soundwalk is “any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment.” Soundwalks have a long history with a consistent body of literature and established practices, especially in the field of sound studies and acoustic ecology where they have been used as educational tools for enhancing sonic awareness and listening skills. But in the past decade especially, they have also been used as a method of inquiry in urban planning and soundscape research projects, and they have employed both solo and group soundwalks.

Against this background, I’ve traced historical notes and drafted a preliminary list of criteria for designing a soundwalk that will be useful for diverse fields of research. My pocket guide to soundwalking proposes specific and diverse methods of soundwalking, drawn from literature review and my practice, and according to the civic, education, and research goals.

A Pocket Guide to Soundwalking” has been recently published in a fantastic book on urban economics, “Perspectives on Urban Economics” (eds Besecke et al.), which “offers a broad palette of perspectives on the multi-layered field of urban and regional economics.” The book pays tribute to Prof. Dr. Dietrich Henckel, who held the Chair of Urban and Regional Economics at TU Berlin’s Institute of Urban and Regional Planning from 2004 to 2017, “and contributed passionately to a wide range of discourses.”

Antonella Radicchi is a registered architect and has a Ph.D. in Urban Design, with doctoral studies conducted at MIT (Cambridge, USA) and at the University of Firenze (IT). She was awarded ihe IPODI-Marie Curie Fellowship, and is currently working on her “Beyond the Noise: Open Source Soundscapes” project at the Technical University Berlin. She collaborates with the European Commission Executive Research Agency as an external expert evaluator in the frame of HORIZON 2020. Her project, Toscana Sound Map, was commissioned for and exhibited at EXPO 2015 in Milan, and since 2009  she has been the curator of Firenze Sound Map, which was included in the Open Data System of the Municipality of Firenze in 2013. Dr. Radicchi has lectured extensively at the university level for ten years and has participated in international conferences and symposiums. In 2017 she has launched Hush City app, a citizen science project, to push the boundaries of knowledge and to promote the environmentally just city.

 

Why is New York City so noisy?

Winnie Hu, The New York Times, writes about the number one complaint in the city, noise, in, “New York Becomes the City That Never Shuts Up.” And we discover that the short answer to the question as to why the city is so noisy may be this: New York City needs more noise enforcers.

Hu interviews Richard T. McIntosh, a long-time resident of the Upper East Side who complains that he “has never heard such a racket outside his window.” Hu writes:

New York City has never been kind to human ears, from its screeching subways and honking taxis to wailing police sirens. But even at its loudest, there were always relatively tranquil pockets like the Upper East Side that offered some relief from the day-to-day cacophony of the big city. Those pockets are vanishing.

Construction is a huge factor in the increase in noise, but residents can’t escape outdoor noise by ducking into noisy city restaurants, gyms, and stores. And noise complaints have increased even after the city adopted an overhauled noise code in 2007. So what can be done? Hu writes that city councilman Ben Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side, “has made curbing noise one of his top priorities,” adding that “[h]e and Costa Constantinides, a councilman from Queens, are proposing legislation that targets some of the most grating sounds by requiring city noise inspectors to respond within two hours when possible to catch noisemakers in the act.”

Hu reports that while “the Police Department handles the vast majority of noise complaints, inspectors with the Department of Environmental Protection also investigate mechanical sources and environmental noise, including after-hours construction, air-conditioners and ventilation equipment, alarms and even barking dogs.” So how many inspectors does the Department of Environmental Protection have? Only 54 for a city of over 8 million residents. Apparently 8 more inspectors are going to be hired this year, bringing the total number of inspectors for all five boroughs to meager 62. And the response time is equally appalling. Hu reports that median response for police officers was 152 minutes, but the median response “for noise inspectors was four days in 2016.”

With construction noise before and after hours being the top complaint in every borough except for Staten Island, it’s unreasonable to expect noise violators to change their behavior when an inspector may show up four days after a noise complaint is filed. Indeed, a recent audit of New York City noise complaints by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli found that bars and nightclubs with “hundreds of complaints lodged against them faced little or no repercussions.”

City councilman Kallos believes that increasing the number of noise inspectors “would not only deter noise but also result in more violations and fines that would offset the cost of the legislation.” Kallos adds that “[i]t is time for the city to hire as many noise inspectors as it takes to respond to complaints when they happen.” We agree. We also agree with Dr. Arline Bronzaft, Chair of Noise Committee for Grow NYC, who notes that “with eight inspectors being hired soon, apparently we do not need legislation to hire inspectors, we just need the money for increased hires to be added to the budget NOW.”

If you live in New York City and want to see Kallos’ and Constantinides’ proposed legislation move forward, contact your city council person and ask him or her to sign on. While you’re at it, ask your councilperson what his or her answer is to New York City’s noise problem. Not sure who represents you in the city council? Click here to find out.  If you reach out to your councilperson’s office, please report back and tell us how they responded in the comments.

And Dr. Daniel Fink, Chair of The Quiet Coalition, weighs in with a letter to the editor of the New York Times.

Tired of background music in public spaces? Want to make it stop?

Photo credit: Andypiper licensed under CC BY 2.0

Introducing Quiet Ann Arbor! Finally, the U.S. has a local chapter of Pipedown, a UK organization that campaigns “for freedom from piped music” (i.e., ubiquitous background music) in “pubs, restaurants and hotels; in the plane, train or bus; down the phone; ruining decent television programmes; adding to the overall levels of noise pollution in public places.”

The Ann Arbor organization has just been formed, and the website is a work in progress, but it’s a start. If you live in Ann Arbor and want the piped in music to stop, contact them by clicking this link. Their mission is simple: to promote the benefits of silence and encourage noise moderation in public. Live in the U.S. but not in Ann Arbor? Contact Pipedown to start your own chapter.

Hear, hear!

And for those who think fighting public noise is ridiculous or not worth one’s time, we note that Pipedown scored a big victory last year when it got Marks & Spencer, the UK’s biggest chain store, to turn off the piped music in their stores.

Good luck, Quiet Ann Arbor!

A lowly fly may offer hope to hearing loss sufferers

Photo credit: Jpaur licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

And Michelle Pucci, TVO, tells us how in her article, “How a tiny fly on a treadmill could lead to better hearing aids.” Pucci introduces us to the research team studying the ormia ochracea, a small fly that is drawn to “crickets’ singing, but no one quite knows how it manages to pick out that sound amid the cacophony of the natural world and locate it so precisely.” Why is this important?  Because if researchers can determine how the fly “pinpoints individual sounds in a noisy setting,” writes Pucci, “it could help solve the so-called cocktail party problem — the one that makes it tough for your grandmother to hear what you’re saying at family functions (and causes her to shout at you), because her hearing aid picks up too much background noise.”

Andrew Mason, a biologist at the University of Toronto explains that the fly’s “eardrums work like a scale, and incoming noises tip the balance.” Unlike humans, the fly’s “eardrums are connected — which Mason says could explain why the fly tries to interpret the different levels of sound it receives in both ears.”  Humans, on the other hand, can “locate and isolate the sounds they want to listen to, even in noisy environments, if the sources are far enough away from one another.”

The problem hearing aid wearers experience is that “it’s impossible to focus on a single conversation in a noisy room…because hearing aids trick the ear into thinking all those sounds are the same distance away.” That is, the hearing aid amplifies everything, making the task of concentrating on one conversation among many impossible. As researchers learn more about the ormia ochracea’s excellent sound-location abilities, engineers have used that knowledge.  Today, mics in some hearing aid design “mimic the fly’s ear structure,” and “research groups around the world are working on hearing aids that would allow the wearer to home in on different frequencies.”

So why do ormia ochracea search for crickets?  The answer is pretty grim:

[T]he female deposits its spawn inside the crickets, who sing when looking for a mate. Black-striped larvae then hatch inside the doomed cricket and scrape at its innards for 10 days…before “bursting out of the side like in Alien.”

The high cost of hearing aids might be coming down

Photo credit: ReSound licensed under CC BY 3.0

Paula Span, the New York Times, writes about legislation making its way through Congress that could make hearing aids cheaper and more accessible. Currently, people needing hearing aids must spend at least $1,500 to $2,000 per hearing aid–double that for a pair–because the price includes bundled audiology services. But under the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017, the Food and Drug Administration would be charged with creating “a regulatory category for [over-the-counter] devices and to establish standards for safety, effectiveness and labeling.”

One reason hearing aids would be significantly cheaper if this bill is enacted is that consumers would not have to go to an audiologist to get them, as they are required to do today. Rather, consumers could opt to purchase audiology services to help adjust each device, but they wouldn’t be required to do so.

And lowering the cost is important as hearing aid wearers tend to be older and “Medicare coverage of hearing aids [is] prohibited by law.” But can consumers adequately adjust their own hearing aids? Swan reports on an Indiana University double-blind clinical trial where researchers worked with participants who never wore hearing aids before. The researchers “compared the experiences of those randomly assigned to full-bore audiology services and those making over-the-counter selections,” and determined that “[i]t didn’t matter whether the audiologist fitted them or the consumer made his own choice…[t]hey both were effective, and they didn’t differ.” Given that hearing loss has a profound effect on overall health and not just hearing health, providing a low-cost option to seniors makes a lot of sense.

But Daniel Fink, MD, Chair of The Quiet Coalition, says that hearing aids do not work as well as people may suspect, which is why many people who have them rarely use them. Rather than focusing all of our attention and resources on treating hearing loss after it occurs, Dr. Fink believes we should also be focusing our efforts on preventing hearing loss in the first instance. As Dr. Fink notes, noise causes hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis, and we could greatly diminish the instances of these disorders by reasonably regulating noise and making people aware that loud sound today means hearing loss tomorrow.

Study: Noise and air pollution adversely affect heart health

Photo credit: G.M. Briggs

CTV News reports that a new European study has found that exposure to excessive traffic noise is linked to a higher risk of heart disease. What makes this study particularly interesting, is that “[a]lthough air pollution has already been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, asthma, and risk of death, and noise pollution linked to raised blood pressure, disturbed sleep, and an increase in stress hormones, until now little research has been carried out on the effects of noise pollution and air pollution — which are often found together — on health.”

For purposes of the study, “noise pollution” was defined as “noise louder than conversation level — around 60 decibels (dB).”  To determine the effect of noise pollution on health, “the researchers tested the participants’ blood for a range of biological markers that could indicate heart disease…and blood sugar levels, which are linked to heart disease, diabetes and stroke at higher levels.” After taking into account lifestyle factors (age, sex, smoking habits, etc.), the researchers found “an increase of just 5dB in noise levels was linked to 0.3% higher blood sugar levels than those living in quieter neighborhoods.”

But the bad news about noise pollution doesn’t end there. The researchers “also believe noise could be increasing the risk of heart disease by causing long-term psychological stress due to lack of sleep and an increase in the production of stress hormones.”

The results should not be entirely surprising. Anna Hansell, one of the authors of the new study, was the lead author on a study linking noise to adverse health effects in BMJ in 2013, and a senior author on another study  linking road traffic noise and cardiovascular morbidity, in 2015.

Additional studies will follow, as the researchers intend to continue their efforts “to add to the limited body of research in this area.”

 

Audiologists warn public about summer activities

Photo credit: Lars Plougmann licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Why the warning? Because some summer activities could cause exposure to hazardous noise levels. Stefanie Valentic, EHSToday, writes that “Ball State University audiologists are warning people to use hearing protection during activities that may expose them to hazardous noise this summer such as mowing the lawn, concerts and fireworks.” “[P]eople may suffer irreversible damage to their auditory systems after only brief exposure,” says Ball State audiology professor Lynn Bielski. Her colleague, Professor Blair Mattern, adds that “[e]xcessively loud noise, music or other sound exposure will damage our hearing. We need to take responsibility and protect it.”

Ed Pfeifer, TribLIVE, would agree. He asserts that ear protection now will pay huge dividends down the line. Pfeifer writes about the “crazy amount of abuse” the human body can take and yet continue to function. But, he adds, eventually there is a price to pay. For Pfeifer, the price was a “very slight drop” in his ability to hear. And the cause of his hearing loss? Pfeifer speculates that:

Numerous rock concerts, excessive gunfire and front row seats at the stock car races have all left their mark on the lobes on the sides of my head. But, I use power tools all the time and if I was a betting man I’d put my money on those tools as the main culprit.

He notes that “[c]hainsaws and circular saws run at about 110 decibels, most table saws hover around the 104 mark and the average confrontation with teenage children, 127.”  Pfeifer knows he can’t go back in time and tell his younger self to wear ear protection, but he is doing that now “to preserve every last bit” of what hearing he has left.

So the best advice this summer–and every summer–is to protect your hearing today so that you have it tomorrow. If you use loud lawn and garden equipment, find quieter replacementsthey exist–or, at the least, don’t start an engine before you put in a pair of earplugs or don ear muff protectors. And if your idea of summertime fun includes outdoor concerts, fireworks displays, or an afternoon at a race track or your workbench, always have a supply of earplugs handy. Ultimately, we must assume responsibility for our hearing.

Millions of people don’t protect their ears

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

By Daniel Fink, MD

Noise is a medical and public health problem, and yet people ignore it at their own peril. Most of us are exposed to too much noise every day. That may explain why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 25% of adults age 20-69 had hearing loss, and that many people with hearing loss didn’t know they had it.

Which is why a recent article by Mark Fischetti in Scientific American,A Loud Warning: Millions of People Do Not Protect Their Ears,” is particularly disturbing. Fischetti reports that while “many people know that they should use earplugs or earmuffs when mowing the lawn or partying at the club,” they don’t protect their ears against noise at home or at work. If you click the link to the article, you’ll see a frightening infographic that very clearly shows that millions of Americans are at risk of losing their hearing or suffering other hearing damage because they fail to protect their ears.

Maybe if people knew that noise caused hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis–none of which can be cured–they might be motivated to protect their hearing and fight for quiet.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area.  He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and 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.

Barcelona is taking back city streets from cars

Photo credit: marimbajlamesa licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

and giving them back to the people. Why? To make them more pedestrian friendly, boosting local businesses and reducing air and noise pollution. Vox has created a short 5-minute video explaining the concept and showing how Barcelona is going to start implementing its new Urban Mobility Plan. One hopes that U.S. city planners are following this development very closely.

Link via Quiet Communities.

How can big cities deal with noise pollution?

Based on a recent increase in news items about noise in cities, the issues of urban soundscapes and noise pollution seem to be getting more attention. Included in this recent spate is an article by Robert Bright, The Huffington Post, who writes about smart, sound solutions to urban noise. Bright begins his article by noting that most people tend to think of noise pollution as “a cause of irritation and sometimes anger,” but fail to regard it as “doing us any physical harm.” But Bright shows that noise is more than a mere nuisance, as he discusses a recent study by Mimi Hearing Technologies which shows that people who live in noisy cities are more likely to suffer hearing loss, a not insignificant health problem. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that the cost of hearing loss is $750 billion globally, which  includes medical bills, lost earnings, and related problems people suffer when they lose their hearing (but does not consider other effects of noise, like stress, fatigue, and poor sleep quality).

So, armed with the knowledge that urban noise pollution is a serious health threat, what can we do? Bright thinks that electric vehicles (EVs) will help to quiet the din, as they make very little noise. He also suggests that the ubiquity of smartphones coupled with free, downloadable sound meter apps will allow cities to compile noise maps that will allow users to avoid noisy areas and help city governments target noisier areas for sound mitigation. Other possibilities exist too, like the development of “radical new materials” that “could provide hitherto unimaginable forms of sound proofing in the future,” to ridiculous street furniture designs like the “Comfort-Shell,” “a giant helmet-shaped object positioned above the head which drastically reduces noise.”

The good news is that whatever method or products are used to address noise in the future, it is clear that noise can no longer be ignored. As Bright concludes, there is a marked “shift in approach to noise pollution” that “combined with citizen activism, increased EV usage and a more mindful attitude to how we are affected by the sounds around us…is putting city life on the cusp of a ‘quiet revolution.’”