Silencity

The Truth About Noise

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The importance of reducing urban noise

Photo credit: Francesco Ungaro from Pexels

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

While the United Nations was formed after the Second World War to promote peace through diplomacy, agencies affiliated with the UN have been involved with other actions to enrich the lives of people worldwide. These actions include promoting mental and physical wellbeing, social justice, gender equity, child welfare, aging, crime prevention and control, and environmental health. To achieve these goals the UN has enlisted the services of behavioral scientists.

In June, the UN will celebrate its 75th anniversary, and it was, therefore, an appropriate time to release a book that examines the role of behavioral sciences in the workings of this organization. The book is titled “Behavioral Science in the Global Arena, Volume 1,” and its editors are Elaine Congress, Harold Takooshian, and Abigail Asher.

In the section of the book entitled “Supporting Environmental Health,” Melissa Search and I co-authored the chapter “Reducing Urban Noise.” With noise a growing international menace for cities worldwide, this chapter examines the effects of loud sounds and noise on hearing and overall physical and mental health. Strong research findings support the fact that urban dwellers universally are suffering from the harmful effects of noise. Although there have been actions taken in Europe, the U.S., and other countries to lessen noise, more still needs to be done to lower the decibel levels in our urban centers. The chapter also stresses the importance of enhancing quiet in our lives through urban green areas and parks. Quiet benefits health!

This book has also been published at a time when our world is coping with the coronavirus pandemic. Urban centers have reported less noise from construction, traffic, and nearby music establishments. Residents have also tuned in to birds signing, crickets chirpirng, and soft breezes. One hopes that the pleasures of these sounds, especially while experiencing anxiety and discomfort, will be remembered as we move forward to a time when urban dwellers will once again be engaged in activities that bring about higher decibel levels. Such memories of the good sounds around us might result in ways to lessen the din. Adversity can bring about creativity!

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

Masks interfere with understanding speech for people with hearing loss

Photo credit: Cleyder Duque from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Understanding speech can be difficult for people with hearing loss, and the requirement for wearing masks during the current COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates this problem. Mask wearing muffles speech, and it makes understanding difficult even for people without hearing loss, as many people with hearing loss consciously or unconsciously use lip reading and interpretation of expressions to help understand what is being said.

And sound decays according to the inverse square law, so the 6-foot social distancing requirement reduces sound volume compared to standing closer to the person one is conversing with.

As noted in this piece from CNN, there are things we can do to help communicate with people with hearing loss:

  • Face them and maintain eye contact when speaking.
  • Speak slowly and carefully.
  • Ask them to repeat back what they heard, so you can be sure they heard it correctly.

And If that doesn’t work, now there are masks being made with clear windows to allow the listener to see the speaker’s lips!

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.

The future of work is not in noisy offices, NY Times survey says

Photo credit: Rum Bucolic Ape licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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

The future of work is not in cacophonous offices, a New York Times survey says. Pandemic-related working from home has accelerated a pivotal, even historic, change: people do not want to go back to their old noisy, politically-charged, distracting, disease-spreading offices. Many–60% according to the New York Times survey–say they’d rather continue to work from home as much as possible.

Could this be the next big driver of “knowledge-worker productivity,” i.e., no commuting, no irrelevant distractions, no pointless meetings in airless conference rooms
with management bringing in the boxes of donuts as a concession? If management buys into this change, hooray!

The whole open plan office fad has really been driven by two things: bean-counters trying to reduce the fixed costs of providing workspace for knowledge workers, while simultaneously satisfying the perceived need by managers enjoy seeing and “counting heads” of everyone under their control by simply looking across the open office floor. There’s been plenty of talk for decades about the advantages of “teaming,” “collaboration,” “sharing,” “cooperation,” and “camaraderie.”

But the bottom line has really been about…the bottom line. Open plan offices save money by spending less on both fixed assets (buildings) and peoples’ needs for space where they can really focus and concentrate, and giving them instead a “hotel-style” chair amidst many others at picnic-style tables and shared kitchens with fully stocked refrigerators so they never need to leave.

Things are changing! Now what will corporations do with all of that empty office space?

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.

Our noise disrupts the Earth’s sonic landscape

Photo credit: Eriks Abzinovs from Pexels

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

Bernie Krause, an American musician and soundscape ecologist, began recording the natural soundscape over fifty years ago when he founded the Wild Sanctuary. Thus, it was with alarm that he noted that the drought of a local creek in Northern California silenced the chirping and singing that had been long associated with that park. Climate change, according to Emily Anthes, “will silence some species in their traditional habitats and force them to seek new ones.” Such shifts, she says, could “make it more difficult for wild creatures to attract mates, avoid predators and stay oriented.”

Anthes writes about the harmful effects of climate change on the lives of frogs, birds, shrimp, and whales. She points to the fact that climate change affects the sounds that animals make and it is this ability to make certain sounds that is critical to their survival. Under stress, “the Earth’s sonic landscape faces disruption.” She concludes her piece by stating that “[n]oise decreases the capacity of animals to discriminate information.”

Like the animals described in Anthes’ article, noise also disrupts the health and well-being of humans. Furthermore, man-made noise also intrudes on the capacity of birds and whales to communicate with each other. And let us not forget that climate change, for the most part, results from human activities.

What do I expect readers to bring away from my review of this article? First, that by tuning into the sounds of birds, frogs, whales and other species, we will learn the important role sounds play in their survival and, hopefully, this will lead to actions to protect these animals, especially in their natural habitats. During this COVID-19 pandemic so many people have stated how much they enjoy the singing of birds and the chirping of insects. These sounds, they say, are soothing and pleasurable. Let’s work together after the lockdown is over to lessen the urban din that drowns out these calming sounds.

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.

Call for papers: Science journal looks at pandemic’s silence

This photograph is in the public domain

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

Researchers in many fields are staring at a profound, world-wide “natural experiment” in enforced quiet that affects every living thing. So we’ve been wondering for weeks now: who’s actually studying this? Turns out people in seismology, earth sciences, and geology were the first to notice their instruments were picking up interesting things. But what about biologists? What about medical and public health researchers? What about acoustical scientists? What an opportunity to learn for all of them!

The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, JASA, published monthly since 1928 by the American Institute of Physics, has now issued a
call for papers about acoustical phenomena and their effects during this “quiet period.”

This is very exciting, because natural experiments are a rare gift for researchers. There were actually two prior—though short-lived—quiet periods during the last two decades: in 2001 for a brief period after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when most transportation shut down, and in 2008, when the global “financial pandemic” briefly shuttered financial markets and much of the world economy. A few very interesting studies on noise effects (for instance on whales—we reported on that work) occurred by chance during the 9/11 aftermath. But there was no time to plan and execute careful studies, so both opportunities were largely missed.

This time is different. Let’s hope the editors of JASA find that lots of researchers are digging into this. Those who are keenly interested in the effects of noise and sound on life here on earth hope much will be gleaned from this rare occasion—the first time since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago that we’ve been thrust back in time and can see what “natural quiet” sounds like and how it affects all of us.

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.

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.

The lockdown provides an opportunity for scientific research

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This BBC report asks the question, “Is the coronavirus lockdown an opportunity for scientific research?”

To me, the answer is definitely, “Yes.”

As the report discusses, and as we have commented on, the marked decrease in human activity during the lockdown has allowed scientists to have new insights in the fields of seismology, marine sciences, and air pollution. In addition, it has increased scientific collaboration using the internet and various platforms, and allowed increased “citizen science” because people are sheltering in place, where they can observe and report on insect life, bird life, and plants, among other things in their yards, to scientists conducting research in these areas.

Most importantly, I think, is that the lockdown constitutes an “experiment of nature” where multiple topics can be studied in a wide variety of fields with the experimental intervention–a novel coronavirus pandemic, with a global lockdown in human activity including much of the global economy–being one that could never be planned but now has happened.

In political science, for example, researchers will be able to compare the effects of different political structures and different leadership styles on both economics and on coronavirus death rates. In Denmark, for example, the coronavirus death rate is half that in the U.S., lower than that in nearby Sweden, and the unemployment rate is 5%. Children are returning to school.

In economics, the “dismal science,” the costs of different national approaches to handling the coronavirus pandemic will provide fodder for PhD theses and think tank study for years if not decades. In public health, the effectiveness of different strategies for dealing with a novel coronavirus is already apparent. Unfortunately, in medicine and virology much has been learned about dealing with a new disease with no specific treatment, only supportive treatment, and as of yet no vaccine and no cure.

And in Georgia, motor vehicle safety experts will be able to compare the crash, injury, and mortality rates between the 16,000 Georgia teens getting their drivers licenses without a road test compared to those who did have to take the road test earlier in the year.

I’m sure there are many more topics that can be investigated due to the unfortunate opportunity created for scientific research by the coronavirus epidemic.

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.

Are birds singing more loudly?

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

With markedly decreased road and aircraft traffic due to lockdowns imposed during the COVID epidemic, many observers have noted that they can hear birds, especially in cities. Some have also noted that the birds are singing more loudly. This report from radio station WAMU states that is not the case, however.

It turns out we just hear the birdsong better because they aren’t competing with traffic noise. As ornithologist Sue Ann Zollinger notes:

“Although our perception might be that they’re singing louder, it’s actually likely in places that are typically noisy that they’re singing more quietly than normal,” Zollinger said in an interview with Morning Edition. “But when the noise is gone, they’re probably singing quieter than they do normally.”

I am glad to be able to hear the birds, whether they are singing more loudly or not, and will miss their sweet songs when things eventually get back to a new normal.

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 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.

May is Better Hearing and Speech Month

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

As I have written previously, I’m not a big believer in special days or months. As far as I’m concerned, every day is World Hearing Day, every month is Better Hearing and Speech Month, and, of course, this month every day is Mother’s Day!

But I have also acknowledged that it helps to have a special day or month to celebrate something or someone and to remind us of important events or topics.

Thanks to our friends at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for all the helpful information they have prepared on protecting our hearing, which they are sharing with the public every month.

Please stay safe, both from COVID and from noise.

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.