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When was the last time that you were truly surrounded by silence? City life is inevitably always accompanied ...
2020-03-22 09:00:00

As Loud as Possible
Urban Noise Pollution

As Loud as Possible

Today, urban life is poisoned by more than just smog, traffic jams and uncontrolled urban sprawl. Our cities are too loud. They ruin our hearing, but also our health – both physical and mental.

Read in 12 minutes

Damascus, 2am. Downstairs, from the street, men shouting, the sounds of deaf thumping and the roar of engines can be heard. I think to myself War?! I look out of the window: a truck full of car tires is being unloaded. Men drag large rubber bagels from the semi-trailers and roll them into the basement located below my little hotel. The street is full of tire shops. The haze of exhaust fumes, silhouettes drenched in sweat. Three hours of clamour that awakens the area. Every night.

Before dark, on a hill on the edge of the city, you can see that the air is trembling – not just from the heat, but also from the intensity of the sounds. As the sun turns red, the first muezzin can be heard – the calls to prayer flow from speakers suspended high on the minarets. Soon others join him, at least several hundred voices. The sky over Damascus trembles so hard that the city seems to be bouncing.

Cairo, afternoon rush hour, a large intersection. I am waiting for a shared taxi – a Lada stripped of paint, or some other car exiled from the West, battered and dented, spewing purulent exhaust fumes and howling like a slaughtered animal. The racket is overwhelming. I’m hanging out in the open space, instinctively seeking shelter, but I can see the sources of noise all around. At the edge of the street, traders shouting the price of their wares, on the road a crowd of vehicles – although their movement is slow, just like hiccups – is howling. Old engines, old silencers, car horns honked impatiently, doors slammed with all force. On the dashboards, radios rumbling with Egyptian hits. There is no escape from this hustle, or rather – everyone is desperately looking for escape, hence the even greater hustle and bustle.

There is no quiet time of day or night. At noon in the centre, near the most important museums, the noise of vehicles and crowds of visitors together form the loudest place in the entire Egyptian capital. This evening, the nearby Tahrir Square will fill with protesters – there will be turmoil, screams, finally shots and panic. But tomorrow the protesters will return.

On the other side of the Nile, the middle of the night heralds the beginning of a good time. Valets catch flying car keys and masterfully insert vehicles into tight parking spots, centimetres from other cars. There are restaurants and clubs on the boats – belly dancing, ethnic music or strong beats from DJ booths. The sounds travel far across the water. In Cairo, nobody sleeps soundly or too long. Before dawn, the market hustle and bustle begins: delivery trucks unload, customers are called to stalls. At night, the bakeries, dairies and craft workshops are at work. The daily scream.

The outskirts of Delhi, 1am. We enter the city, or rather – we try to enter this behemoth counting over 27 million souls. I am woken up by the roar of engines as loud as if I was standing beside a jet on the tarmac. But this is just a traffic jam on a motorway. Massive trucks surround our bus. All of them will somehow squeeze into the tangle of city streets, many of them will roll into the streets of Old Delhi, between the mediaeval monuments, mosques, and stalls glued to the walls. They roar like whales clustered by plankton with tiny auto rickshaws, motorbikes, scooters, and more and more passenger cars. Everyone honks their horns at each other as if their presence was otherwise invalid and insufficient. Every few seconds, a characteristic rickshaw horn, resembling the screech of a children’s toy, only very loud. The city has recently introduced designated quiet areas where the use of car horns is not allowed – entire streets and areas within a 100-metre radius of schools, kindergartens, hospitals, and some temples. Delhi follows the example of Mumbai, the loudest Indian metropolis, where the density of 22 million people on a small patch of land causes noise so loud that it exceeds three times the decibel norms set by the World Health Organization. A normal conversation has a volume of 50 to 60 dB, but many areas of Mumbai are as loud as 110 dB, i.e. the equivalent of an airplane engine or the inside of a large factory. If people experiencing such noise were employees, they would have to wear safety headphones. But because the sound encircling them is the everyday score of their urban life, they just shrug and keep making noise. It is not the city that creates the noise, but we do – each and every one of us, separately, all at once.

Kolkata, downtown, almost 6am. The first rickshaw driver honks, and soon more sounds join in. A car with a howling radio passes by. Someone spouts water from a bucket, they snort and spit while bathing. Someone is blowing into a shell, calling for morning prayer. The temple bells are ringing. The muezzin is calling. Two streets away, an old streetcar that surely remembers the Raj enters a bend on the rails – a sharp squeak. I imagine the sparks are flying. A bus, no younger than the tram, enters my street, one with a wooden body and an engine the size of an entire Fiat 126. The roar of the machine, the shout of the conductor hanging from the door: “Park Street! Park Street! Alight! Attention, women!” Two loud whacks of an open hand on the tin exterior of the machine so that the driver knows that everyone has got in, and he can drive. Full throttle, an unimaginable roar of the engine. The first traders have already set up their stalls, unloaded the universe of shirts, deodorants, electronic watches, smartphones, pipes and fruit. And they are yelling. No, they are shouting over each other to attract passers-by – prices and tempting adjectives roaring from their throats. Entire necklaces of words repeated quickly 10, 15 times. And the street is already buzzing, the whole city is driving – like a procession that sucks everyone around in with its movement, wakes others up with its noisy movement, pulls them into madness, kills the silence.

In this city of millions, it is only quiet in an 18th-century cemetery, among the stone catacombs and plaques commemorating colonial officers who fell victim to common malaria or severe indigestion.

A weekday in Mumbai is a constant infusion of noise into one’s ears and mind. Millions of lives crowded into tiny spaces – in buildings from the previous century and in the slums, on the pavements. And people are living in hordes, noisily, lacking intimacy and silence. In the poorest houses, there’s a television set or a radio, a fan and so-called cooler, the poor cousin of the air conditioner. Loud quarrels or multi-person meals, conversations and laughs, packs of squeaking children running back and forth. Hordes of street dogs barking at this tumult, as if they wanted to mark the area with sound. Trains passing right by the houses. But that’s nothing in comparison to the religious festivals that go on for three months of the year. It’s a time of parades where thousands of people walk and dance through the streets, deity statues and huge loudspeakers sway on car platforms – exploding fireworks and human screams burst through the rumble of music. Here, joy is expressed on the streets; happiness is experienced collectively and boisterously. To this we might add the wedding season, hardly less noisy. One can go deaf or be driven mad from this excess happiness. Inhabitants of large cities in India partly or totally lose hearing some 10–20 years earlier than their age would indicate. They also suffer, like all people exposed to excessive noise over a long period of time, from diabetes, atherosclerosis, obesity, as well as significantly increased levels of cortisol – a stress hormone that destroys blood vessels and interpersonal relationships. It increases the likelihood of aggression and violence. The intensity of sounds is proportional to cramped living conditions. Both of these effects worsen its quality and shorten it.

New York, Midtown Manhattan, near Madison Square Garden. I pull down and close the window in the popular behemoth Pennsylvania Hotel, the 7th Avenue’s racket keeping me awake. Once I do this, I have to turn on the fan. The stuffy air in the room is no less tiring, and so I put my head on the pillow, surrounded by noise anyway. I won’t be able to fall asleep. There are people everywhere; I can hear them on the other side of the walls, in the corridor, down in the street – on the escalators leading out of the massive train station, stomping down the sidewalk. Cars are constantly driving by, regardless of the time of day. New York taxi drivers like to honk their horns, perhaps because many of them are Pakistani and Indian, and that’s how they learned to drive in Amritsar and Karachi? At two corners of the intersection, night-time roadworks are underway. Diagonally – a building renovation. The kitschy ‘I Love NYC’ souvenir shops blast loud music from the early morning. People walking down the street are talking loudly into their mobile phones, ignoring the even louder Broadway ticket vendors. On the corner, someone is yelling about Jesus wanting to save us. This is the sonic quintessence of New York – electrifying during a few days stay, but how to live with it and not go crazy?

We don’t know much about the impact of noise on mental health. For now there is a growing body of research confirming that prolonged exposure to excessive sounds contributes to depression, reduces concentration, impairs our decision-making skills, leads to poor choices, reduces cognitive abilities, and prohibits learning. To put it simply: it is overwhelming, and doesn’t let us think, feel or sleep. And, because in the course of evolution our brains have developed a great sensitivity to sounds, it’s simply annoying. Hearing and recognizing the source of sound was a matter of survival for primitive people. And now our minds, assaulted by noises, are constantly working to ignore those sounds. They are at work trying hard to push away the (often-constant) interference.

Drawing by Zbigniew Lengren
Drawing by Zbigniew Lengren

Looking at the lively 7th Avenue at night, I am reminded of Hong Kong and Tokyo. Those cities also do not let us fall asleep – they flood the night with a wave of light and sound. The flashing neon lights and illuminated facades never fade away. Advertising messages, played on a loop, burst from loudspeakers in stores, always coupled with noisy music. In gaming arcades, slot machines emit a deafening cacophony, in which you can only press the joysticks mechanically or pull the knob of a one-armed bandit. Whether you win or lose, the machine emits a tune cutting through the noise. In restaurants, where people dine in groups, drunk and loudly-talking people sit at large tables. You have to shout your order at the waiters, otherwise they won’t hear.

In Seoul, when one district falls asleep, the neighbouring one begins to party. Once the noise starts dying down, coffee grinders and clamorous blenders preparing stimulating cocktails are already whirring in the ubiquitous cafes – a crowd of 25 million sleepy commuters must get to work. In the capital of South Korea, the hustle and bustle has moved underground – to the most extensive metro system in the world, where each station is a busy marketplace. Only the subway carriages offer a little respite – the contrasting silence of bodies that do not talk to each other, but send billions of silent messages, staring at their smartphones. A sonic purgatory – a tacit agreement renewed every morning by a society on a massive hangover.

Kampala, sundown. I’m sitting on a motorcycle behind a boy who has covered his mouth with a scarf to protect himself from exhaust fumes. We are slowly driving through a roundabout, or rather driving around what will one day be a roundabout. People are already here, the infrastructure – not yet. The Ugandan capital, like many African cities, is only just happening. Its future sounds ever clearer: every day, new residents and new kinds of noise arrive. From a road jammed with off-road Toyotas and motorbikes, I hop over to the minibus station – a huge square with hundreds of vehicles. Around them, yelling touts wave, shout, show passengers to their seats and bundle their trunks on the car roofs. Engines on, god knows why, perhaps to emphasize the inevitability of travel, to hurry latecomers. The market near the sports stadium buzzes like a beehive – whoever is loudest will sell more. At a friend’s house on the outskirts, and later in a hostel in a wealthy district full of shopping centres and embassies, I practice noise-related insomnia. The sounds of car engines mix with the music from pool bars. I spend 14 days in this city. For 14 days and nights, my head hurts.

I have never been to Beijing or Guangzhou – according to the 2017 world noise pollution index, the loudest cities on Earth (the ones described above are all in the top 20). But my ears can already imagine it: too many human desires to be accomplished, too much business to carry out, too many urgent opportunities, too many machines and technologies that can improve it all. We live in a great density and rush, at the price of noise, which – as we mistakenly think – we cease to hear.

***

Around the world, more and more people are moving to cities. By the mid-21st century, there will be 416 million more inhabitants in Indian urban areas. In China – 255 million more than today. It is therefore inevitable that noise levels will also increase. This increase will be accompanied by (further) class divisions: those who can afford the luxury of peace and quiet, and those who will be squatting (because it’s difficult to call it living) in noisy facilities, next to railway tracks, expressway junctions, viaducts and bridges around factories and manufacturing plants and logistics centres. We already know that, for example, in the US, in cities such as Chicago or Detroit, people of colour live in neighbourhoods that are several decibels louder than those where white people live.

Until the beginning of the 21st century, noise was an underestimated and unmeasured factor in city life, but now awareness is slowly growing that it is – next to polluted air – one of the biggest problems faced by big cities, and it is often called the silent killer. Noise is quickly becoming a nuisance to people, and those who have money will be happy to spend it in order to avoid it. Therefore, a rapid growth is forecast in the market of soundproofing materials production (nearly half of this increase will take place in Asia and Africa), as well as technologies that have so far been used only in philharmonics and recording studios. On the one hand, construction companies are beginning to invest in materials that will allow people to isolate themselves from urban noise or cause the building to ‘attract’ other sounds. This is possible, for example, thanks to holes that redirect sounds to homes from inner yards, not streets.

On the other hand, some companies and restaurants are already investing in sound modification systems, a kind of sonic Photoshop. They allow you to model the sounds heard by employees in the so-called open spaces, or the customers at large restaurants (where more and more often, we are shouting instead of talking). They amplify some sounds, and soften others, allowing a reduction in the noise heard around the conversation to a non-engaging hum, even helping concentration or quiet conversations with people sitting at the same table – the so-called ‘pink noise’. For example, Bloomberg’s London headquarters use the sophisticated Constellation system. For now, however, these solutions are available to the few, because their cost ranges from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars.

The authorities of major Asian cities are also developing a new awareness of noise. The installation of soundproofing screens along busy streets is beginning, as is the designation of quiet zones (e.g. closed to traffic), the introduction of fines for car horns, and driving bans for old, noisy engines. From New York to Karachi, the implementation of these restrictions isn’t going well. Meanwhile, however, the special phone lines where you can report noise complaints are besieged. Reports in New York or Mumbai are counted in tens and hundreds of thousands per year. They usually apply to street works, construction, car traffic, but also to other people: loud neighbours, customers.

All over the world, it can be heard that we are losing patience. But that’s just the beginning. In order to effectively quieten down our busy lifestyle, we first need to measure the problem carefully. Determining the noise levels in cities will allow us to fight for the introduction of laws protecting the internal need for silence. Anyone can help by installing one of the free applications for measuring noise in their phone (e.g. NoiseTube). They allow you to easily record and add the obtained result to global databases – an invaluable source of knowledge for researchers and activists who will take these decibels to city councils and mayors, and demand the right to silence on our behalf.

 

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel

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