City Noise Might Be Making You Sick
For a century, urban commotion has been treated as a moral failing of individuals. Fixing it will require systemic changes to environmental noise.
What are your ears hearing right now? Maybe the bustling sounds of a busy office, or your partner cooking dinner in the next room. Whatever the texture of the sonic landscape of your life may be, beneath it all is the same omnipresent din: the sound of cars.
That might seem benign, or perhaps even endearing—the sound of the bustle of the big city. But the din of vehicles, along with transit and industrial activity, is making people sick. People forget that noise pollution is still pollution. And noise pollution is everywhere.
Unlike many other injuries, hearing damage is irreparable. It also functions differently. People tend to assume that hearing loss is akin to turning down the volume in one’s head—that everything just sounds quieter. But it’s more complex than that. Sound at certain frequencies just vanishes—birdsong, intelligible human speech, the gentle rustling of leaves, the crispy highs of brushes on jazz cymbals. People can avoid using earbuds excessively or attending loud concerts. But people do not necessarily have the ability to avoid high levels of environmental noise—it’s in their neighborhoods, near their schools, at their workplaces. That makes noise pollution a matter of bodily autonomy.
Solving the environmental-noise problem has been difficult, partly because for more than a century antinoise advocates have fought for the right to silence rather than the right to hear.
Concerns about hearing loss largely focus on excessive noise exposure. But environmental noise is just as unsafe. People living in cities are regularly exposed (against their will) to noise above 85 decibels from sources like traffic, subways, industrial activity, and airports. That’s enough to cause significant hearing loss over time. If you have an hour-long commute at such sound levels, your hearing has probably already been affected. Urban life also sustains average background noise levels of 60 decibels, which is loud enough to raise one’s blood pressure and heart rate, and cause stress, loss of concentration, and loss of sleep. Sirens are a particularly extreme example of the kind of noise inflicted on people every day: They ring at a sound-pressure level of 120 decibels —a level that corresponds with the human pain threshold, according to the World Health Organization.
But since the turn of the 20th century, protecting human hearing has taken a back seat to securing quiet for those with means, and punishing those without. Noise-abatement laws transformed an objective concern about environmental and health conditions into a subjective fight over aesthetic moralism.
One of the earliest urban antinoise campaigns was initiated by Julia Barnett Rice, the wealthy, well-educated wife of a businessman and publisher. The sound of tugboat horns was causing Rice great annoyance as she tried to relax in her ornate Italianate mansion. But she knew that this appeal would fall on deaf ears, so to speak. So she decided to use the poor and sick people languishing in urban hospitals as a scapegoat. Isaac Rice, her husband and the publisher of The Forum, became a champion of his wife’s crusade. In 1906, he published her piece, “An Effort to Suppress Noise,” which amounts to a call for class antagonism. She begins by channeling the pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who likens noise to boorishness:
There are people, it is true—nay, a great many people—who smile at such [sounds], because they are not sensitive to noise; but they are just the very people who are also not sensitive to argument, or thought, or poetry, or art; in a word, to any kind of intellectual influence.
Who are these insipid people in Rice’s narrative? The tugboat workers. The piece recounts Rice’s efforts to ban excessive whistling from aboard their vessels. Rice portrays herself as a dogged crusader, pleading for quietude amidst unrelenting clamor.
First, she sought aid from the law. In the New York City Collector’s Office Law Division, she discovered a clause that “seems to vest in the Local Board of Steamboat Inspectors all necessary powers to punish ... any act on the part of a licensed officer that they adjudge to be ‘misconduct’ or ‘negligence’ or ‘unskillfulness.’” In other words, Rice attempted to present the call of tugboat horns as professional misconduct. Alas for her, the U.S. Local Steamboat Inspectors decided that “the point was not well taken.”
Rice then went to the police to start a petition drive. She promised signatures from “poor and rich alike,” but sent establishment personalities to collect them. Among the endorsees were wealthy hospital superintendents, who lent credence to Rice’s claims to help the sick rather than to punish marine workers. The inspectors were still unmoved.
When Rice finally interviewed some of the tugboat workers, she presented their responses as evidence of wrongdoing rather than as the accounts of workingmen describing their labor. The tugboat captains offered reasonable rationales for sounding whistles. One explained that removing the whistles “would necessitate an extra deckhand to act as messenger to notify the pier hands, besides all the time that would be lost.” Another stated, “We run a risk of losing a whole tide if we do not rouse the crew on the barge.” And yet another, “You must whistle to wake up the crew, which you cannot expect to stay on watch day and night.”
Rice did not relent. She went to maritime academics and higher-ups, who endorsed her and researched her claim. At last, she won a victory: The National Board of Steam Navigation passed a resolution prohibiting unnecessary whistle-blowing. The tugboat workers adhered for a day or two, and then, finding that work became impossible and that the National Board had no way of enforcing the resolution, returned to using the horns as often as they liked.
Rice had had enough. She proposed a law restricting all but a few scenarios in which tugboats can use their whistles, and demanded a standing representative in the Department of Commerce and Labor who would police the waterways for nuisance. In this effort, too, she came away empty-handed.
Finally, in one last-ditch effort, Rice found success. At a meeting of about 10,000 representatives from the transportation industry, the American Association of Masters, Mates, and Pilots passed a resolution ending the use of “indiscriminate and, above all, noisy signaling.” The law was replicated at the federal level under the 1907 Bennet Act, the first antinoise bill ratified by Congress. Rice’s use of the poor and the sick as a tool to pass her legislation played little part in why the authorities finally listened. Researchers had found that the signaling was impacting tugboat navigation, making entering and exiting the harbor confusing and unsafe at night.
Throughout Rice’s entire ordeal, she presented the tugboat workers as personal enemies rather than potential allies. Her plight for quiet was a moral one; as she saw it, the peace had been stolen from her by the mariners. Looking back, she comes off as vindictive and elitist. But unfortunately, her belligerent approach set the stage for subsequent noise-abatement campaigns in cities around the country.
As the historian Emily Thompson explains in her book The Soundscape of Modernity, noise-abatement laws singled out relatively powerless people, those who were seen to impede “the middle-class vision of a well-ordered city.” Among these was the 1908 General Order 47, issued by New York City Police Commissioner Thomas Bingham. It targeted street ruckus rather than port noise: commotion from street vendors, newsboys, tin-can kickers, roller skaters, street musicians, automobile horns, flat-wheeled streetcars, and more. Soon after, laws that banned occupational noises, preventing people from working for a living in order to protect the quietude, appeared in Boston; Little Rock, Arkansas; San Francisco; and elsewhere.
These fights hit street workers, most of whom were immigrants, hard. Still, the courts upheld the laws. One infamous incident involved a Chicago ordinance that limited peddlers to certain parts of the city and banned them from advertising using shouting. When the courts upheld this law in 1911, the peddlers first went on strike, and then rioted, causing a mass uprising and widespread damages. The police punished the peddlers, the strike was broken, and the law remained on the books. Soon there were no more vendors walking the streets. By the 1920s and ’30s, noise law after noise law helped clear the urban street. Eventually, it ceased to be the domain of people and was overtaken instead by cars—which created their own noise, of course.
Noise laws also played a key role in the development and implementation of zoning, the separating of a city’s parcels of land into “zones” for which a specific purpose (such as residential, commercial, or industrial) is assigned. A lasting legacy of Rice’s tugboat campaign was the concept of “quiet zones”—places where noisemaking was especially prohibited because of its potential harm, such as around hospitals, schools, and the houses of the sick. New York set up its first quiet zones in 1908, aided by Rice’s work in talking to hospital administrators, and other cities followed soon after. Violating a quiet zone usually constituted a misdemeanor offense, punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both.
Enforcing antinoise ordinances troubled legislators at both the local and national levels, especially when the perpetrator of a noise was an industry vital to a city, a conflict that persists to this day. Interfering with commerce in order to protect silence was perfectly acceptable when it limited barkers, peddlers, or other individuals with little power. But when it came to manufacturers, factories, or the transporters of goods, the risk of disturbing commerce outweighed the benefits to the peace. Also, since noise and its treatment in the law was subjective, antinoise legislation was often ineffective. Police in urban areas had much more pressing issues at hand anyway.
However, the idea of “quiet zones” persisted in urban planning. The first zoning laws took noise into account, designating residential zones in places separate from commerce and industry. Like noise-abatement laws, zoning was also built on a foundation of inequality. One of its earliest uses created boundaries separating black and white families, a practice that persisted even after the Supreme Court struck it down in 1917. Middle-class whites looking to prevent lower-income nonwhites (and to some extent lower-income whites as well) from infiltrating their neighborhoods had to come up with a different legal solution.
According to Richard Rothstein, the author of The Color of Law, this was achieved when zoning ordinances began “to reserve middle-class neighborhoods for single-family homes that lower-income families of all races could not afford.” That meant keeping apartment buildings out, a decision that is partly responsible for the extreme housing shortages today in cities like San Francisco, where the median home price hit $1.5 million in 2017.
In these places, the fight for affordable housing has won advocates for denser development. But homeowners who profit from rising property values still fight tooth and nail to keep apartments out of single-family neighborhoods. One of the most common objections to denser, more affordable housing is that the new apartments would cause too much noise.
Even though the changes to urban geography leaned in their favor, by the mid-century urban elites and middle classes sought the tranquility of the suburbs—idyllic locales where they could escape the noise, machines, and crowds. Their flight starved the cities of needed resources, which only exacerbated urban inequality. Like zoning, the history of the suburbs (including its promise of peace and quiet) was driven by racism, too. Early suburban developments like Guilford and Roland Park outside of Baltimore had strict covenants against issuing mortgages to racial minorities and Jews. While this may seem unrelated to sound, there is a connection: The branding of racial and religious minorities as “loud” is a common prejudicial trope and one that is often used to protest building projects. For example, a 2003 incident in Belfast, Northern Ireland, saw the Ulster Unionists, a nationalist party, campaign against the construction of a mosque, citing that local residents would be kept awake by “wailing.”
Today, as suburbanites return to cities, they bring the fight for quiet along with them. To gentrify a neighborhood also involves quieting it down. The desire for sonic control in and around the home is prioritized above the social fabric of the city, a practice exemplified by the targeting of arts and music venues that are cited as being partially responsible for neighborhood revival in the first place. In her book Beyond Unwanted Sound, Marie Thompson describes an example from the industrial area of Ouseburn Valley in the United Kingdom. The region had become a hotbed of music and the arts partly because there were few residences to disturb. Eventually, several venues closed after repeated run-ins with the law due to noise complaints. These complaints came not from concerned locals, but from wealthy newcomers buying into new developments built explicitly to capitalize on the area’s vibrant nightlife.
The noise that does the most harm doesn’t come from clubs and house parties—the causes of many garden-variety noise complaints and violations. Ironically, Rice did get something right in her crusade: Industrial noise poses the worst problem, although individual workers were not to blame for it, as Rice had also concluded.
The two largest sources of environmental noise are transportation and industrial activity. The cars for which early noise ordinances helped clear the streets have amplified that noise to a universal, inescapable level. Industrial areas, often designated for land close to the poorest nonwhite areas in a city, are even worse.
Industrial operations churn at 80 to 89 decibels, loud enough to do severe damage to hearing over time. Sounds like crushing stone, excavation, sawing, and boilers and furnaces hover around 100 to 109 decibels, loud enough to cause hearing loss after 15 minutes of exposure. To make things worse, many of the homes built near urban industrial zones are older ones, often built without improvements like insulation and fireproofing that might block noise, or subfloors that can help isolate its vibrations. Their residents often don’t possess funds to make repairs that might further reduce its impact.
Air traffic, which can be particularly loud close to major airports, is another factor. As Garret Keizer notes in his book The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want, new airports tend to be built closer to poor communities of color—partly because residents of these areas often lack the resources to fight back against new development like their white, wealthy counterparts do. For industry, choosing these sites offers a path of least resistance.
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 are more than a disturbingly antisocial means of dealing with a neighborly dispute; they 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.
To solve the environmental-noise problem, cities and their citizens should learn from the mistakes of the past. Targeting the noise of individuals is ineffective, antisocial, and fails to eradicate the noise that really hurts people: environmental noise. Solutions to that problem must be systemic, requiring a large-scale, collective response across many different targets.
Despite her intentions, Julia Barnett Rice offers a model. She arrived at success only once she began addressing the marine industry at large. Similar approaches can work today. Instead of punishing individual transportation workers whose trucks may be too old, a more comprehensive solution could target the Department of Transportation, with demands to repave worn roads with the porous asphalt configurations used in Europe to reduce tire noise. Likewise, any move toward using renewable energy sources will result in a quieter environment, as coal and oil extraction are extremely noisy labors. At the local and state level, demanding funding for repairs and improvement to outdated transit infrastructure will greatly reduce the noise caused by trains, cars, and trucks.
Urban-planning approaches to eliminating noise on a city-by-city basis can be as simple as taking a single lane away from cars and giving it to bicycles, people, or green space. Improving, expanding, and properly funding public transit removes cars from the road, both reducing the sound they produce and replacing it with quieter options like trams and high-speed light-rail. In architecture, acoustics should play a greater role in all structures, from mundane apartment buildings to the grandest art museums. Noise control should be a consideration from the very first planning stage, rather than tacked on as an afterthought.
Many of these methods service ends far broader than reducing noise pollution. They can also protect the environment, reduce police surveillance, and keep industrial activity at bay. Tighter environmental regulations on air travel, industrial production, and commercial products can also help. These efforts, combined with enforceable environmental-noise laws, offer a remedy for the blight of urban noise.
That might sound simple, but America has tried and failed at it before. In 1972, an entire department was created within the Environmental Protection Agency to combat environmental noise, called the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC). Less than 10 years later, ONAC’s funding was cut by the Reagan administration, effectively ending federal oversight and enforcement of environmental-noise violations. Today, as similar environmental protections are being dismantled by Scott Pruitt’s EPA, reestablishing another ONAC seems unlikely. Absent administrative oversight, Americans seem to have descended further into aural helplessness. What can anyone do about sirens, airplanes, and freight trucks?
Instead of taking broad action, people continue to take some small comfort in noise-abatement laws. Organizations like Noise-Free America still focus on policing the actions of individuals. Their current campaigns include fighting the evils of leaf blowers and punishing citizens who drive cars with modified exhaust systems.
Noise is a problem largely unrelated to the moral pursuit of silence, the antisocial issue that has obsessed city dwellers for over a century. To combat it, urban residents must understand that noise is first—and worst—produced by those with the most power. That means industry and infrastructure, not individuals. The only way to save our ears is to start talking to our neighbors about noise instead of policing them for it. As citizens, we must work for large-scale changes at the local, state, and national level. That will require building coalitions between neighborhood organizations, environmental activists, urban planners, city-council members, unions, teachers, audiologists, architects, and acousticians. In other words, we have to start making a little bit of noise in order to stop it.