Before the pandemic, the London street where I live was a rare patch of calm in a noisy city. When the lockdowns of 2020 arrived, that situation flipped like a switch.
Riding into central London on my bike, I saw that many streets were deserted and quiet. My own road, by contrast, seemed to get much louder, even without the usual hum of cars and planes. It wasn’t just the weekly “clap for carers” session—when people applauded on doorsteps to show support for the National Health Service—or the occasional ambulance siren. With most residents now always at home in their 1920s row houses, I couldn’t help hearing a teenage boy screaming at his computer games beyond my living room wall, while our upstairs neighbors compensated for missed social opportunities by dancing drunkenly above our heads. Next door, two families grilled and played salsa music in their shared garden at what felt like eccentric hours.
Delivery drivers, busier with most stores closed, staged daily shout-offs as they struggled to pass on our narrow street, provoking its three new lockdown puppies (one of them mine) to bark and howl in chorus. The feral parakeets feasting on the cherry tree next door seemed to screech louder. Perhaps they were afraid of being upstaged.
With even backyard birdsong sounding newly abrasive, it dawned on me that mine might be a case of heightened sensitivity, as my ears tuned themselves to an acoustic environment newly stripped of the urban background hum.
If so, it wasn’t just me. A University College London study confirms a distinct phenomenon: During last year’s lockdowns, average noise levels did indeed drop across London. There was also a dramatic change in noise complaints—but not in the way you might expect. They went up more than 47%, according to an analysis by the same UCL researchers, and were overwhelmingly occasioned by neighborhood noise.
Nor was London or the U.K. an outlier. Increases in noise complaints were reported from New Zealand to Brazil. Traffic—by far the biggest culprit behind high urban noise volumes—may have calmed, but around the world, shut-in city dwellers were clearly finding one another more grating than ever.
As normal city life slowly returns, the phenomenon is worth reflecting on. Lockdowns, though stressful, gave many urbanites a chance to attend to their immediate surroundings more closely, to discover (or rediscover) their local communities. Some got a reprieve from commuting and now plan to continue to work from home at least part of the week. That will please urban planners who, even before the pandemic, sought to integrate the disparate places where people lived, worked, shopped, and relaxed. (For example, Paris’s “15-Minute City” planning model imagines city residents meeting all their immediate needs within a short walk.)
The result of all this may be fewer soul-sucking commutes, but also more friction—not just among neighbors, but among residents and businesses. While the imminent switch to electric vehicles will make cities somewhat quieter, it will also bring neighborhood noise—if the lockdowns are any guide—more to the front of people’s consciousness.
So sound seems a key part of the post-pandemic urban rethink. Beyond certain thresholds, noise can cause real physical harm: Researchers have linked it to hearing loss, stress, high blood pressure, and other ills. But much of the time, simply reducing the volume of noise in a space, as the experience of lockdown suggests, doesn’t in itself make people more at peace with their surroundings.
If we’re going to promote an acoustic environment where citizens can coexist happily—and we have to believe they can—we should change our approach. In place of the tendency to fixate on the quantity of sound in our environment, we should think a lot more about its quality.
We’d be following a school of thought that’s currently among many acoustic researchers and theorists: the soundscape approach. It can help us think with more nuance about how cities should sound and how they can remain places where people want to linger. And it’s starting to shift the way cities are managed in Europe, influencing plannin in Berlin; Valencia, Spain; Limerick, Ireland; and London’s financial district, the City.
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
De-radicalizing the Extremists
Parents for Peace enlists ex-believers to help families win back loved ones drawn to Islamism, QAnon, and other ideologies. Demand has never been higher
Europe's Energy Crisis Is Coming for The Rest of Us
Millions of people around the globe will feel the impact of soaring natural gas prices this winter
Big Sky's Moment of Glory
The most rugged resort in Montana gets speedy lifts, luxury hotels, and fine dining to match its extreme slopes
Black Hairstyles Need Protection
In most U.S. states, employers and schools are allowed to discriminate against box braids, locs, and other traditional styles. A coalition of activists and legislators has started to change that.
High Stakes On the Lake
Justin Bibb wants to be Cleveland’s next mayor. If he beats Kevin Kelley, he’ll inherit serious problems—and a windfall to fix them
Can twitter get us to be nice?
Social networks are all designed to make people angry and keep them coming back for more. Now, one of the worst offenders is trying to be less of a hellscape
Let's Make Covid Testing Part of Our Morning Routine
A Harvard immunologist champions low-cost, at-home rapid tests to beat the pandemic
Homeopath, heal thyself
Natalie Grams believed—really believed—in the healing power of homeopathy. Then a health crisis of her own forced the German physician to question her faith
Stuck on the Sidelines of The U.S. Job Market
Conversations with some of the 5 million out-of-work Americans shed light on why so many jobs are going begging
The Hunt for the Most Lucrative Patients
Privately run Medicare Advantage programs get paid more when members look sicker—even if they don’t receive more care
Simon Butler on Foundational Change
London – The Crossroads
A London in Transition
Turn It Around
Amruta Patel is a student at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. She has been studying Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication and Heartful Communication for the last several months.
New York City Made the Office
And the office, in turn, made modern New York.
Kingpins and wannabes barrel through the London underworld.
Back on the Road
We all know travel can be a pain, but when it hits below the belt you need to know there’s something you can do about it
GET YOUR FRONT ROW SEAT TO VIRTUAL FASHION SHOWS
It’s hard to remember now, but it was during the fall ready-to-wear shows last February that the fashion world first became aware of the coronavirus, even before it had been declared a global pandemic.
AMAZON OPENS FIRST UK CHECKOUT-FREE GROCERY STORE IN LONDON
Amazon has opened a cashier-free supermarket in London, its first bricks and mortar expansion outside the U.S. as the company bets on strong demand for its contactless shops.
Extremely Online and Wildly Out of Control
Patricia Lockwood’s debut novel explores the mind, and heart, of an internet-addled protagonist.
LONDON TEA PARTY
HOW JOE BONAMASSA DECAMPED TO ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS WITH BERNIE MARSDEN AND FORMER CREAM LYRICIST PETE BROWN TO WRITE AND RECORD ROYAL TEA, AN ALBUM THAT’S BURSTING WITH THAT BRITISH BLUES BOOM