Local Peace Economy

Inside the Activist Efforts to Stop Noise Pollution

Noise pollution and the battle for quiet space and peace of mind.

Photo Credit: Diego Cervo / Shutterstock

Ah, the sweet, sweet sound of New York City on a spring day: Traffic, horns, cursing; the buzz of eight million people and their multiple devices. The roar of a subway train entering a station. The sound of piles being driven into the ground for hours on end for a new condo building.

I didn’t realize how loud the city was until I left it, and was startled to hear, for the first time, the hum of a digital alarm clock, and the clicking sound my sweatshirt’s zipper pull made, lightly tapping against the zipper as I walked.

My cell phone, turned up all the way and tucked into my purse, startled me when I arrived in the quiet of the country. In New York, I could barely, if ever, hear it ring.

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Noise is everywhere, and it’s remarkable how loud American life has become. In U.S. cities, the backdrop of sound beats at 60 decibels (enough to cost you peace of mind and sleep) and rises to 120 decibels—a painful level you probably shouldn’t be exposed to (though you are, at rock concerts or when a siren goes off). That’s all compounded where poor people live, near highways and industrial areas, or beneath police helicopters, hovering day and night.

One might think a trip to one of our nation’s treasured national parks would help—except, even our parks are noisy. Not with the cacophony of nature we so intuitively crave, but with the roar of distant planes and automobiles. The sounds of nature—chirping birds, the bark of an elk, the call of a bald eagle—are drowned out, and it’s getting harder and harder to find natural quiet, even in the most pristine places.

Sound can be viewed as itself a natural resource, and one we should strive to preserve, not just for ourselves, but for future generations to hear. Animals use sound to survive, to mate and to communicate.

We humans once knew how to listen to those sounds for our own benefit: The birds can warn us of an impending storm—if we can hear them. But what if we can’t? Sure, a weather app might tell you, but wouldn’t it be cool if not every message you received came from your handheld device?

Colorado State University’s Listening Lab and the Natural Sounds and Night Sky Division of the National Park Service are working to make sure we can still hear nature. The Natural Sounds and Night Sky Division works within the park system to protect "acoustical environments,” using technology to collect data on the soundscapes of our parks. CSU students then compile and analyze that data, putting together comprehensive reports that can be used to find ways to curb the manmade sounds infiltrating our parks and to further our understanding of these precious natural soundscapes.

Alas, most American’s don’t live near one of these natural treasures, and with proposed increases to admittance fees, it is likely even fewer Americans will have access to them.

How, then, do we foster quiet in our urban areas? As Kate Wagner writes in The Atlantic, it’s a serious problem:

"In Baltimore, two loud sounds pervade the city: police sirens (120 decibels) and low-flying police helicopters (which I measured at 80 to 85 decibels during a recent visit). In low-income communities, these sounds are almost constant. The relationship between noise laws and the police reach another level of conflict that speaks to the fundamental problem of policing the sounds made by individuals. In a city where encounters with police can spell life or death for people of color, noise complaints … can also become weapons of violence in the hands of the carceral state. If the noise complainers are also the noise punishers, it becomes clear that the current system of fighting noise is built to trap the most disenfranchised citizens."

In this piece, Wagner makes the point that in urban areas, noise policing can be a tool used by gentrifiers. She goes on to note that some of the biggest anti-noise organizations “focus on policing the actions of individuals… [by] fighting the evils of leaf blowers and punishing citizens who drive cars with modified exhaust systems.” Motorcycles are also targets.

Yet it’s not the modified exhaust systems, leaf blowers or late-night heavy metal and hip-hop music that is ultimately driving the most people batty. It’s the constant din of traffic, transit, policing, and industrial noise that is most harmful to human health.

“Urban residents,” writes Wagner, “must understand that noise is first—and worst—produced by those with the most power. That means industry and infrastructure, not individuals.”

(This doesn't mean you should just ignore the leaf blowers. Ecologically minded gardening professionals urge neighbors to adopt sustainable landscaping techniques—like rakes!—in order to get some relief from the leaf blowers that drive so many people—and wildlife and birds—crazy with their roaring decibel levels and clouds of toxic exhaust.)

So before making a noise complaint to the local police department, consider the source, the result, and how you might best pursue your quest for peace. The answer might just be found in another department: local developers, the mayor's office, community groups, transportation authorities, economic boards, or local, state and congressional representatives.

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Valerie Vande Panne is an Independent Media Institute writing fellow who contributes to Columbia Journalism Review and Reuters news service, among other outlets. She is the former editor-in-chief of Detroit's alt-weekly, the Metro Times, and the former news editor of High Times magazine. She is the founder of Blackbird Literacy, an organization providing books to residents and literacy programs in Detroit. Connect with her on Twitter @asktheduchess.