Tuning In to a Happier City
Bloomberg Businessweek|September 06, 2021
Noise is an irritant of urban life. But there are ways to make it easier on the ears—and the psyche
Feargus O’Sullivan

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.

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