Silencity

The Truth About Noise

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Mapping New York City Noise Complaints

The Atlantic’s City Lab reviews a new map by CartoDB that maps how noise is perceived in New York City.  CartoDB “[p]rogrammers mapped publicly available 311 noise complaint data from 2015 by Census tract, and layered on a dashboard that allows users to study those complaints against more than a dozen different metrics.”  City Lab notes that, “[i]t’s certainly not the only map made from 311 data out there, but it offers a lot more opportunity to play with the data yourself than most others.”  Definitely worth checking out.

Mapping noise complaints must have been the idea du jour this month, because The New Yorker also addressed 311 noise complaints in Mapping New York’s Noisiest Neighborhoods.

The New Yorker article also mentions an exciting development in the noise pollution front:

Margaret Chin, a councilmember from lower Manhattan, introduced a bill that would require the Department of Environmental Protection to start sampling noise across the city. The bill notes that “noise pollution is widely prevalent in urban areas” and that “transportation systems are the main source”—though it adds that bulldozers, air compressors, loaders, dump trucks, jackhammers, pavement breakers, loudspeakers, plumbing, boilers, air-conditioners, fans, and vacuum cleaners also bear considerable blame.

This is excellent news.  Before noise pollution can be properly controlled, we need to see the data.  Who knows, maybe city council will finally implement and enforce a noise regime that will make lilving in the city just a little bit easier.

Everyday noise: Hand dryers

In For drying out loud: Noisy hand dryers cause issues for some, the Dallas Morning News addresses one of our personal nemeses, hand dryers in public restrooms.  While the noise generated by a hand dryer may be merely annoying for most, they are a source of distress for people who suffer from tinnitus, hyperacusis, and sensory disorders such as autism.  The article discusses an Oregon State senator’s proposed legislation to limit public hand dryers to 84 decibels, “because louder models are ‘extraordinarily obnoxious and disruptive’ to people with sensory disorders, including [the legislator’s] autistic son, who cries and covers his ears when he’s near loud hand dryers.”

The problem is that the newer, more robust hand dryers are also louder:

[S]ome hearing experts have already made up their minds on high-decibel models like the Excel Xlerator and the Dyson Airblade.

“They’re a real cause for concern,” said Dr. Deanna Meinke, an audiologist and a professor at the University of Northern Colorado. “It’s just one more unnecessary source that adds to our cumulative exposure to noise.”

And there’s the problem in a nutshell.  Hand dryers are sold as an ecologically sound alternative to paper towels, but one wonders if the real reason for their use the cost savings associated with no longer purchasing paper towels and the less frequent need to remove trash/clean restrooms.  Sadly, no one puts a price on the discomfort (if not damage) suffered by those affected by loud hand dryers, which, unsurprisingly, are often placed in small tiled spaces.  As Dr. Meinke noted, it’s just one more unnecessary source of noise.

Thanks to Bryan Pollard for the link.  Bryan is the founder and president of Hyperacusis Research Limited, a non-profit charity dedicated to funding research on what causes hyperacusis with the goal of developing effective treatments.

The danger to hearing posed by restaurant noise is so obvious

even the NY Post has written about it.

Steve Cuozzo of the NY Post reports that “leading otolaryngologists — better known as ear, nose and throat specialists — warn that dining at the city’s noisy restaurants can lead to hearing loss.”  In his piece, Cuozzo interviewed Dr. Darius Kohan, director of otology/neurotology at Lenox Hill Hospital and its affiliate Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, who states that, “[he tells his] patients to avoid these places,” adding that loud restaurants are the number one complaint he gets as an ear doctor.

Cuozzo visited a number of Manhattan hotspots where he recorded decibel readings from 90 to 101, all of which have the potential to permanently damage hearing over time.  Again quoting Dr. Kohan, he writes that “[w]ith repeated, prolonged exposure, ‘you start losing high-frequency sounds such as women’s and children’s voices,’ adding that “[i]f damage to the cells advances to a certain point, ‘a consequence is that you begin to lose hearing.’

Importantly, the article highlights the insidious nature of this aural abuse, particularly with respect to the customers.  Namely, that “[u]nlike restaurant employees, whose ears take a beating night after night, customers might not even know it’s happening.”  As a result, if and when customers begin to suffer hearing loss, they may “think it’s just from age.”

Equally important, the reporter takes care to note that not everyone who complains about the noise levels “are old fogeys.”  As noted in an earlier post, one reason that restaurants are so loud is the misguided belief that younger customers are drawn to loud spaces.

One hopes that the recent spate of articles decrying the levels of noise in American restaurants encourages city governments to regulate indoor noise pollution at places of public accommodation.  One thing is becoming increasing clear: loud restaurants are not a mere annoyance, they are a health issue.

Thanks to M. Slice for the link.

Architecture and sound

In Dear Architects: Sound Matters, Michael Kimmelman has written a fascinating article on sound as a component of architecture.  The article uses multimedia elements that allow the reader to hear the images, which makes the piece all the more powerful.  Kimmelman believes that sound is an element that adds texture to a space, for example the ambient noise in Grand Central which “rises upward and outward, toward the hall’s immense ceiling, embodying the impression of the terminal as a soaring gateway to a great metropolis, promising adventure.”   He also acknowledges how noisy cities have become, noting that:

During the Middle Ages, smell was the unspoken plague of cities. Today it is sound. Streets, public spaces, bars, offices, even apartments and private houses can be painfully noisy, grim and enervating.

It is the failure to consider sound when designing spaces, particularly public spaces, that allows sound to become overwhelming, to become noise.  This failure of design can be heard in almost every new “it” restaurant (and the wannabes) where the only consideration appears to be the space’s visual impact.  This is disconcerting because “[a]coustics can act in deep, visceral ways, not unlike music (think of the sound of an empty house).”   And there is no respite from the sounds of the city when your attempt to escape the crowded and noisy streets leads you to a crowded and noisy restaurant, bar, or enclosed public space.

One hopes that architects and designers consider how the design of a space and the materials used allow the people who will use the space to appreciate the sound of their footsteps as they cross the floor or, as Kimmelman observed, the reassuring “heavy clunk” of a solid wood door over a hollow one.  He adds that “we don’t talk nearly enough about how sound in these buildings, and in all the other spaces we design, make us feel.”  No argument here.  It is the failure to consider the affect of competing, discordant, and uncomfortably loud sounds that has made city living more difficult over the last few decades.  So let’s hope that architects and designers consider how unnerving and uncomfortable spaces become when they are designed only for their visual impact and without a thought towards how they sound.

Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, for the link.  Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association.

Quiet City Map: Manhattan℠

We are happy to announce the launch of our sister site, Quiet City Map.   Quiet City Map is home to Quiet City Map: Manhattan℠, a map-based guide to places through out Manhattan where the sound levels are reliably comfortable (and, sadly, some places that are best avoided).  The map provides ratings for restaurants, bars, coffee shops, public spaces (e.g., parks, squares, and privately owned public spaces (POPs)), museums and retail stores according to sound level and sound quality.   Quiet City Map will host both the map and individual reviews for each map entry.  We hope that you find Quiet City Map: Manhattan℠ a useful guide as you navigate the city.

 

On the ubiquity of pop music in public spaces

In “A Point of View: Why it’s time to turn the music off,” philospher Roger Scruton writes about pop music’s unrelenting assault on our ears in almost every public place today.  Scruton’s concern is focused on the smothering effect banal pop music has on young people and our musical tradition, but it is his indictment on background music in public spaces that sings to those of us who crave some silence:

Whole areas of civic space in our society are now policed by this sound, which drives anybody with the slightest feeling for music to distraction, and ensures that for many of us a visit to the pub or a meal in a restaurant have lost their residual meaning. These are no longer social events, but experiments in endurance, as you shout at each other over the deadly noise.

* * *

 

And there is no law against it. You are rightly prevented from polluting the air of a restaurant with smoke; but nothing prevents the owner from inflicting this far worse pollution on his customers – pollution that poisons not the body but the soul. Of course, you can ask for the music to be turned off. But you will be met by blank and even hostile stares. What kind of a weirdo is this, who wants to impose his will on everyone? Who is he to dictate the noise levels? Such is the usual response. Background music is the default position. It is no longer silence to which we return when we cease to speak, but the empty chatter of the music-box. Silence must be excluded at all cost, since it awakens you to the emptiness that looms on the edge of modern life, threatening to confront you with the dreadful truth, that you have nothing whatever to say. On the other hand, if we knew silence for what once it was, as the plastic material that is shaped by real music, then it would not frighten us at all.

Noisy restaurants are part of a pattern

Eater NY restaurant critic Robert Sietsema addresses disturbing trends in the New York City restaurant industry in his recent piece, “Charting the Decline of Restaurant Comfortability.”

The focus of Sietsema’s article is on the restaurant industry’s attempt to cram as many diners as possible into the smallest possible space, but he also notes the role noise has played in the decline in restaurant comfortability:

Other features of declining comfortability involve noise levels and meal speed. The modern restaurant is noisy as hell, making meaningful conversation impossible and potentially leading to outright hearing loss. This prompts you to want to leave sooner, I contend, though others believe deafening noise is synonymous with having fun and eating well.

Sietsema concludes by stating that “it will probably take a real estate crash — or laws that prevent greedy real estate operators from letting restaurant spaces stand empty for long periods in anticipation of ridiculous rents — to return the average eating establishment to the level of comfort it displayed just 20 years ago.”  He may be right, at least with regard to the pressure on restaurant owners to squeeze as many customers as he or she can to satisfy the rapacious rents demanded by New York City commercial real estate moguls.  But there is something that can be done to address  loud restaurants.  Namely, if “background” music is a big factor in the noise level, ask that it be lowered.  If management refuses–and yes, they occasionally refuse–either get up and leave or, if you have already ordered, vow never to return again.  And do write the owner and tell him or her that they’ve lost a customer.   Eventually some restauranteurs will recognize the value in providing a comfortable and quiet space.

How a professional cellist learned to live with a career-ending ear injury:

The Atlantic has posted a fascinating aritcle by Janet Horvath, the former principal cello for the Minneapolis Orchestra who suffered an acoustic-shock injury to her left ear during a concert that led to a severe case of hyperacusis.  In “A musician afraid of sound,” Horvath writes that the placement of a speaker two feet from her ear left her unable to tolerate noise, including music.  The article allows those unfamiliar with hyperacusis to understand the devastation it can cause, particularly when the injury happens to someone for whom music was both a career and passion.  Fortunately, after being fitted “with modified hearing aids that…lower[ed] the volume of sound without altering its clarity,” followed by months of desensitization therapy, Horvath was to pick up her cello two years after her injury and play, but in the end she accepts that she would never be an orchestral musician again.

It’s gratifying to see a piece about hyperacusis in a mainstream publication, particularly since so few people are aware that it exists.  One hopes that pieces like this one, coupled with recent newpaper articles addressing restaurant noise, help to raise awareness about the noise pollution’s impact on health.

Thanks to Bryan Pollard for the link.  Bryan is the founder and president of Hyperacusis Research Limited, a non-profit charity dedicated to funding research on what causes hyperacusis with the the goal of developing effective treatments.

New York City reconsiders taxi tv screens

The New York Times reports that after almost a decade of being bombarded by unnecessary noise, taxi passengers may be given a reprieve.  Namely, it appears common sense may reign as the City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission may adopt a pilot program to remove the ubiquitous and annoying “Taxi TV from some cabs and replace it with more modern — and less intrusive — technology.”  This is welcome news for those of us who spend the first minutes in a cab struggling to find the right button to shut the tvs off.  One hopes that the pilot program will be successful and one less layer of noise and distraction will litter the city.

And no surprise, the cabbies are happy with the news too.  The New York Times reports that, “Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, said the mood among drivers over the change was ‘utter elation.’  ‘The T.L.C. is eight years late in reversing a horrible decision,’ she said, ‘but we’re glad the time has finally come.’”

Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, for the link.  Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association.

Turn It Down: How to protect yourself against noise pollution

In “Turn It Down,” Dangerstoppers (Beverly Hills Television) highlights the dangers of noise exposure and its adverse effect on hearing.  The video is very good at informing viewers about dangerous levels of sound and provides tips on how one can limit his or her exposure to noise pollution.  Included in this important piece is Dr. Daniel Fink’s segment on ear plug options for hearing protection.

Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, for the video link.  Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association.