Noise pollution at a human level

My last post was a brief look at some academic data on the harms of noise pollution. Since writing it, I’ve been thinking more about what noise pollution looks like in my community.

I’m writing this in June of 2020, as Illinois’ coronavirus stay-at-home restrictions are beginning to ease a little, but life is still very far from “normal”. For the past few months, much of the world has spent more time confined in their living spaces than they would otherwise choose to.

I am very lucky. I have enough room in my apartment, access to some outdoor space, and good neighbours. But writing my last post set me thinking about what the term “good neighbours” actually means to me.

I realized, somewhat to my surprise, that to me “good neighbours” means almost exactly “quiet neighbours”. I have always lived in cities, and with a couple of exceptions I have always fallen into the modern trope of having little to no relationship with my neighbours beyond cursing them under my breath if they play loud music at 4am. Those times I have had “good neighbours”, they have been good because they were quiet, and their quietness allowed me to ignore them, forget about them, and pretend they didn’t exist.

On one level that feels sad - that what I most value in my neighbours is their absence rather than their presence - but it also reflects the realities of city living, where most people live closer to others than they would otherwise choose to.

It also reflects just how intrusive noise from neighbors can be. Consider the senses:

Touch and taste are hopefully non-issues for your neighbors (and if they are, the scope of the problem likely exceeds the analytical capacity of this blog post).

Sight can certainly be an issue. Neighbours might have a rusting car on their front lawn, or paint their house neon pink, or have exterior flood lights that they keep on all night. But these nuisances tend to be mild, and to not extend into the interior of your home. At worst, you might need better blinds or thicker curtains.

Smell can be a problem. If a neighbor is a heavy smoker, the odor can easily penetrate into your apartment, and the problem can be especially bad in an apartment building if the ventilation system carries the smoke directly into your home. And compared to light pollution, an odor is much harder to block. You can close your eyes but you can’t (easily) close your nose. A blackout blind will keep out light, but it much harder to keep out a smell. But ultimately, it’s relatively uncommon to have a horrible smell seep into your apartment, it’s relatively easy to choose to live in a no-smoking building, and if there is a problem neighbour, they tend to affect only the apartments next to their own.

Hearing, however, is extremely different. Noise can travel further – much further – than line-of-sight or a bothersome odor. While other forms of nuisance generally only impact one’s direct neighbours, a noise source like a leaf blower can easily carry for very large distances. One study found that the noise from a single gas-powered leaf blower exceeds the World Health Organization’s daytime noise standards even 800 feet (243m) away. Busting out my high school math, that means a leaf blower creates a circle of above-the-limit noise with a radius of 800 feet, and an area of roughly 2,010,000 square feet, 46 acres, 20 average-size city blocks or 0.19 square kilometers. Consider for a moment how many people could live in a circle that size.

Leaf blowers are a particularly egregious example, not least because the noise they produce has a low-frequency component that travels particularly well and irritates the ear with a particular severity. But the problem is much, much wider than that – motorcycles, power tools, stereo systems, car alarms, barking dogs and many other sources of domestic noise can travel remarkable distances, potentially affecting hundreds or even thousands of people.

There is, therefore, a certain responsibility we all share to minimize how much of this kind of noise we create, especially at times when most people are trying to sleep. The quiet soundscape of a neighborhood is a shared resource, one that we draw from when we are trying to relax or sleep, and contribute to when we are thoughtful and considerate with the noise we produce. And it’s a resource that we can deplete or even temporarily exhaust when we create loud noise that can travel a great distance.

It’s unreasonable to expect people to be silent. Sometimes, you just need to do something noisy. You can’t remodel a kitchen or test your smoke alarms without creating a lot of noise. But my suggestion is to keep in mind the people around you, have empathy for them, and give some weight to their peace of mind and health when you plan activities which are going to create noise. Because for a lot of people who live in towns and cities, creating noise might be the single thing you do which has the widest reach and largest impact on other people.

– Gabriel