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The Struggle for the Urban Soundscape

The quiet of lockdown and the noise of protest restage the political conflicts of sonic life in the city.

Updated at 9:15 p.m. ET on July 21, 2020.

Videos by Erin Brethauer and Tim Hussin

I remember a night of insomnia a few weeks after the pandemic began. As I lay in bed early that March morning, my mind racing, the robins began to sing—a silver lining under a poor night’s rest. As the sun rose, I waited for the inevitable sounds of day: the car engines of people in my Washington, D.C., apartment building headed off to work, the clamor of landscapers with leaf blowers, the din of a construction crew’s nail guns, all drowning out the birds until the next daybreak.

But to my surprise, the day’s usual noise never arrived. The robins continued to sing, joined by a choir of white-throated sparrows, cardinals, and Carolina wrens. Walking my dog, I saw why. The construction site was abandoned, all the equipment gone. The landscapers who descend every Wednesday were nowhere to be found either. Our parking lot, usually empty by 8 a.m., was full of cars. Until their afternoon lull, when they nap or seek shelter until dusk, the birds sang on.

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Others noticed this newfound quietude too. Friends online asked if the world had gotten quieter. My urban-birding mailing list was abuzz over the quality of new recordings. Scientists soon confirmed the phenomenon. First, Dutch seismologists showed that the lack of travel during lockdown had caused Earth’s surface to vibrate less. Later, The New York Times aggregated environmental-noise studies from around the world, demonstrating that cities had in fact gotten much, much quieter during the pandemic.

Using my training in acoustics, I took my own, rudimentary measurements and compared them with ones I had taken while walking around my neighborhood when apartment hunting a year ago. I noticed an average reduction of six decibels. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a staggering change to the soundscape—roughly the difference between a city street at rush hour and 2 a.m. Under any other circumstances, such a quick and dramatic reduction in noise levels is unthinkable. Juan Pablo Bello, a noise researcher at NYU, captured the disturbing tension between this new silence and the frightening social conditions responsible for it: “It’s not a healthy sound in my mind. Even though I’ve been hoping for quiet in many ways for all these years thinking about noise, being obsessed with noise—somehow this is not quite what I was hoping for.”

Months after the morning the robins sang, I experienced a different but equally powerful sonic experience. During the first week of Black Lives Matter protests in June, my husband and I traveled to the White House to join a march. As curfew loomed, cops prepared to round up straggling protesters. Chaos had erupted in front of the White House gates—people shouting and rushing from block to block, flares burning out in the middle of the street, police in riot shields, batons in hand, grabbing protesters, the smell of lingering pepper spray. The police threw flashbangs at protesters, who immediately scattered. My ears rang for three days afterward.

The protests continued for weeks, accompanied by an endless wail of sirens and the constant whirring of low-flying helicopters. What was once a soundscape of startling, if enjoyable, quiet had become a cacophony of raucous, but righteous, noise.

These two soundscapes encapsulate an age-old battle between noise and silence, which is really a struggle for control over city life. A simultaneous pandemic and political uprising offer an opportunity to reinterpret that struggle. Researchers, urbanists, and citizens have all gotten noise and silence wrong, proposing solutions that are moralistic at best and undemocratic at worst. Silence and noise might seem like aesthetic matters. But resolving the conflict between them demands facing broader issues of environmental, social, and political power.

Massive crowds in San Francisco during protests against police brutality in May and June

The term soundscape was popularized by the composer and sound-studies pioneer R. Murray Schafer in his 1977 book The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Concisely put, a soundscape is an acoustic environment as perceived and analyzed by humans. This analysis involves field recordings, ethnography, and written observation, as well as the study of historical accounts of how a place sounded in the past.

Schafer describes three themes of a soundscape: keynotes, signals, and soundmarks. Keynotes are background sounds that establish a place’s unique sonic identity, such as rare, localized birds or the roar of the Santa Ana winds. Signals are foreground sounds meant to grab attention, often to communicate a message, such as alarms, whistles, horns, sirens, and so on. Schafer calls the third theme “soundmark” (derived from landmark): sound that is unique to a community. “Once a soundmark has been identified,” Schafer argues, “it deserves to be protected, for soundmarks make the acoustic life of a community unique.”

Capturing a soundscape of D.C. today would involve taking numerous measurements and field recordings of coronavirus-quiet streets and parks as well as downtown protests; conducting interviews with citizens; and studying previous ethnographies and acoustic or soundscape studies of the city. Perhaps such a study would find that the city’s keynote sounds would be newly prominent birdsongs and the burbling of Rock Creek; its signals might include low-flying helicopters and police sirens downtown as protests continue; and its soundmarks might be local protest chants or people talking about foreign policy at the grocery checkout.

Schafer’s influential book solidified the common belief that the sounds of nature are superior to the sounds of man—and especially superior to the sounds of machines. It also entrenched the idea that quiet is natural and therefore superior to noise, which is unnatural. Schafer thought that sounds made by “primitive” humans were inherently higher-quality and more meaningful than sounds made by modern ones, for example. Writing at the height of environmentalism, New Age mysticism, and back-to-the-land movements, Schafer vaunted pastoralism and lamented industrialism. He deemed the encroachments of human invention a kind of “sonic imperialism.”

Schafer was hardly the first to contend that cities and industry ruined the soundscape. That idea was already widespread at the dawn of the industrial age, as books such as Walden demonstrate. As I previously wrote for The Atlantic, the early fight for silence in the city was taken up by wealthy urbanites tired of steamship whistles, early renditions of zoning, and anti-noise laws that targeted the behavior of urban citizens rather than systemic environmental problems, especially automobiles. The right to silence is a kind of aesthetic moralism, tied up with appeals to public well-being, justice, democracy, and, more recently, sustainability.

Sonic aesthetic moralism has been taken up by NIMBYs opposing affordable development, suburbanites in defense of their decision to live far from the city core, urban planners rallying around pedestrian-friendly street design, public-health officials citing the physiological effects of noise, and environmentalists advocating for sustainable building practices—all sharing the opinion that quietude is better for cities, communities, and human well-being than noise. This belief is echoed in the celebration of the positive impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on city sound. “Nature is healing,” as the COVID-19 memes read.

Noise pollution can have a deleterious effect on human health: It can lead to stress, hearing loss, high blood pressure, and poor sleep. Noise also disproportionately affects poor communities of color. But urban-noise control has also been used to increase policing and accelerate gentrification. Historically, in order to attain the pandemic soundscape some find favorable—the singing birds, the empty streets—society has suppressed the soundscape of protest. It’s as if this spring and summer have staged the ultimate heavyweight match of competing soundscapes.

A coyote explores Corona Heights Park before the 7 p.m. banging of pots and pans in support of frontline workers battling COVID-19 in San Francisco.

This contest will have no winner, because noise isn’t inherently “good” or “bad.” It is a physical phenomenon, one open to political and aesthetic interpretations. Noise eludes definition, although the most common one is “unwanted or unintentional sound.”

But unwanted to whom? What some would consider the noise of live music in a club is, to others, part of the appeal of nightlife. Noise can be an important means of communication—an ambulance siren signaling an emergency, a rattling car demanding repair, or a crying baby requiring care. People, especially those with impaired vision, rely on noise to judge the proximity of objects, vehicles, and other people. For some, the sounds of traffic or a café are comforting and enable focus. Sometimes one has to make noise to reduce it, such as paving a street to ultimately reduce tire noise. Often, people tolerate noise because what produces it benefits them, such as the convenience of living close to an elevated train station or the barking of a beloved dog. In the case of protests, noise is a part of their strategy: causing disruption in order to draw attention to an issue and demand change. Similarly, the weaponization of noise by the police via long-range acoustic devices and flashbangs hopes to suppress that appeal to change. It’s a cliché, but noise is in the ear of the beholder.

This nuance—the fact that noise cannot be easily defined—belies a truth: The fight for silence is often, in reality, a fight for power and control. In her book, Beyond Unwanted Sound: Noise, Affect, and Aesthetic Moralism, the sound-studies scholar Marie Thompson argues that silence is a luxury available only to those who can afford it. Once seen as something purchased and therefore owned, silence becomes an object its owner has the right to defend and protect.

That explains why the right to silence has so frequently been tied to homeownership, especially that of the single-family detached house in the suburbs. Renters and the urban poor, who have the least control over where they live, Thompson argues, are the ones who encounter the greatest sonic disturbance. By contrast, wealthier suburbanites can avoid undesirable noise and the uncertainty it brings. “Where the city is framed as a clamorous space of change, conflict, difference and unrest,” Thompson writes, “the quiet suburbs are characterized as places of sameness, predictability, and stability.”

Both the loudness of Black Lives Matter protests and the quiet of urban lockdown reflect this battle for control. As soon as the coronavirus pandemic started changing city conditions, some urbanists launched campaigns to make such change permanent by banning or reducing car traffic on urban streets or adding protected bike lanes. Nicholas de Monchaux, an architecture professor at MIT, blamed urban inequality on poor street and transportation design, and praised the opportunity to redesign streets during lockdown. At Curbed, Alissa Walker lambasted appeals such as de Monchaux’s. “Instead of bearing witness to mass death as a moment of reflection,” she wrote, “many urban advocates are using the coronavirus as an opportunity to accelerate their pre-pandemic agendas—agendas which ignore the issues that made COVID-19 more catastrophic than it should have been.”

As Black and brown urbanists have observed, transportation reform should be rooted in equity rather than pandemic opportunism. “The open streets that drew cheers of victory in the ‘war on cars’ a few weeks ago are filled with the blood, tears and bodies of Black people who are tired of being killed in the intersection,” Destiny Thomas wrote. Active Transportation Alliance’s Lynda Lopez noted that to celebrate the closure of streets so that pedestrians and cyclists can practice social distancing in comfort ignores the fact that closed streets are subjected to increased police presence, making them unsafe for communities of color. Some praised restaurants for expanding into the streets, but Sahra Sulaiman has documented how street vendors, whose work already took place there, have been painted as a public-health hazard and faced targeted harassment and economic struggle.

Calls to make city streets safer also restage the battle of noise and control. Some urbanists want to banish the noise of automobiles so that more people can live more healthfully and sustainably. Meanwhile, some protesters want to flood those streets with clamor so that more people can participate in public life absent racialized violence. And yet an urban soundscape that eliminates the mechanical sound of cars and trucks might still be both economically out of reach for many as well as policed harshly. Redesigning the city to preserve the soothing birdsong-laden lockdown soundscape might be incompatible with the equally valid sounds of democratic protest.

Top-down, technocratic approaches to sonic intervention have had unforeseen consequences before. The noise laws of the 19th century, which allowed police to kick vendors off the streets, helped make room for cars. Likewise, it is easier to regulate the sounds of individual people in particular places, such as closing roads to traffic for pedestrians and cyclists than it is to manage more harmful sounds, such as the industrial noise that disproportionately affects low-income communities of color.

The BLM protests and the coronavirus lockdown have drawn attention to the urban soundscape and how it might change for the better. These sudden changes may redefine environmental and urban policies, whether by advancing the sounds of nature by removing machinery or by advancing the sounds of urban democracy by removing the clamor of policing to improve public safety for people of color. In some cases, those changes might be incompatible: Slow- or open-streets policies in New York and Chicago took cars off the streets and opened them up to greater pedestrian presence but at the cost of increased policing to enforce those new rules. No matter the case, when noise becomes the mechanism for urban change, the wish for quietude tends to mask a desire for control. The question is never just Who gets to make noise?, but also Who gets to make noise about who gets to make noise?