As I write this, I am sitting out on my balcony enjoying an unusually warm –
but welcome – spring day. The first draft of this article was composed on a
notepad of the old pen-and-paper variety. But I wouldn't be able to describe to
you the scritch scratch of the pen on the page even if my life depended on it.
Not far beneath my balcony, the movie-theatre grade sound system of a boom car
is competing with the growling glass exhaust of a souped up Honda Civic next
to it to see which one can shake more windows. From the apartment beneath me,
some horrid collection of pop music is being played at equally painful volumes.
A pedestrian on the sidewalk nearby is shouting into the cellphone microphone
clipped on their friend's ear as part of a three-way conversation and a tiny dog
is barking at the top of its little lungs to ensure that that man at the other
end of its leash can hear it above the din.
Needless to say my pen doesn't stand a chance of being heard over any of this. Even
retreating back into my apartment and closing all my windows and doors doesn't
seem to help much.
Cities are noisy places. You have countless people crammed together in a
geographically small place, all of them using machines that were either designed
specifically to create noise, or else do so as a byproduct of their regular
function. On top of that, you have seas of concrete for the sounds to bounce off
of, and not much in the way of green space or other open areas to absorb sound.
In some cities the persistent noise levels are loud enough to disrupt sleep and
cause hearing loss.
The World Health
Organization even goes as far as to postulate that persistent city noise may
contribute to conditions such as stress and hypertension, and affect a person's
problem solving and memory skills. And this is just persistent noise, I haven't
even mentioned the big noise polluters yet: planes and trains.
You could argue that a good share of the noise pollution one encounters in a
city is not something that can be controlled. What citizen has the ability to
relocate airports so that they are not subjected to the sound of the planes as
they land and take off, or fly low enough over the city to be heard? Or change
the schedules of the trains so that they don't have to run along the tracks
nearest residential areas at the times of night when people are trying to sleep?
I would counter by saying that while these big noise sources are important
concerns, there are many more smaller sources of noise that cumulatively do a
lot more to disrupt your well-being. These smaller sources are what I would call
persistent city noise, since, barring a major blackout that lasts long enough to
shut even the backup generators down, they are always there in the background.
Canada has established that they know of no known hearing loss issues
associated with exposure to sound less than 70dB, regardless of how long you are
exposed. However, depending on how sharp your hearing still is, sounds as low as
45dB, well below
this hearing loss threshold, can be loud enough to disrupt sleep and cause all
the problems associated with that sleep loss.
The fact is, a good amount of the noise in a typical city is not caused by
planes and trains that stop polluting an area with their noise as soon as they
travel far enough away from it. Persistent city noise is caused by loud cars,
and stereos, and gadgets that ring and chime and beep and otherwise cry for
attention. It is the fan running inside my computer to keep the CPU from
melting, or the compressor in my refrigerator that routinely starts up and shuts
down in a burst of spectacular noise, it is the video games I am playing on this
computer with the speakers turned up high when I should be transcribing my
article. It is even the sound of my keyboard when I finally get down to work.
And the louder all these things get collectively, the louder other things have
to get to be heard over them. In older buildings, fire alarm systems used to
have to be loud enough only to wake a sleeping person. Now they have to be loud
enough to drown out the sound coming from a pair of headphones playing a CD at
In the short term there isn't much we can do about the situations that increase
noise pollution in the city, we can't cover every single building in
noise-absorbing materials overnight, but we can reduce our exposure to
unnecessary noises. We can make it unfashionable, or even illegal (though this
is traditionally very hard to enforce) to have a boom car or glass exhaust, or a
leaf blower, thus reducing the abundance of these noisemakers. We can use our
stereos with more respect for our neighbours, turning them down to reasonable
levels, and have more face-to-face conversations instead of shouting to be heard
over a phone. We can set aside time in our days for "quiet time" where we turn
off any unnecessary sources of noise and give our ears a break. We can wear
earplugs if we know we are going into a situation where we will be exposed to
damaging levels of noise that we can't control, and, those inclined can avoid
such situations in the first place. I for one do not eat in any restaurant where
the music or kitchen noise is loud enough to prevent me from having a
conversation with the people at my table. It is not good for my health, and it
can't possibly be good for the health of the people who work there who are
exposed to that environment for hours each day.
Perhaps the only good thing about noise pollution is that when the noise stops,
the pollution is gone. We don't have to worry about mounds of toxic byproduct,
or the regeneration or permanent loss of some resource that it has depleted.
When you stop the source of the noise pollution, it simply ceases to be.
Reducing noise pollution does not mean you have to stop enjoying your favourite
music, or getting rid of all your gadgets or escape into the wilderness to live
a monastic life in total silence. After all, louder music is not better music,
and productivity is not measured on the frequency with which your email program
beeps at you, or at least it shouldn't be. With the rise in popularity of the
home office, computer technology was encouraged to "run quiet" because
oftentimes that home office was in a corner of the worker's bedroom. If enough
people requested cars or motorized lawnmowers or gadgets that
could run quiet, then I am sure the manufacturers of these devices would start