Sound and the city - how noise pollution threatens urban life

March 31, 2016


Sound and the city - how noise pollution threatens urban life

The once buzzing sound of big city life, has in recent year in some places climbed to an unbearable roar. The world’s biggest metropolitan cities are today in danger of drowning in an ocean of noise with extensive consequences for public health.  

The world’s biggest cities continue to tempt contemplation of aspiration, nightmare and myth. By 2050, the UN predicts that two out of three world citizens will be living in urban areas. The number is today around half. As the largest metropolitan cities continue to grow larger, not only clean water and fresh air has become scares. Also silence is becoming a premium commodity enjoyed by the few. Traffic jams, helicopters, busses, trains and construction sites are imposing noise at a level which endangers public health. Research results results clearly link exposure to noise and the occurrence of cardiovascular diseases, cognitive impairment, sleep disturbance, stress and hearing problems.  

A few snap shots of key locations in metropolitan cities around the globe reveal the urgency for action*:

  • amman
  • braseil
  • tokio
  • tokio 2
  • mumbai
  • ny
  • ny2
  • syd2
  • chi1.1
  • uk
  • syd-3

New York City, USA

The city which never sleeps has long been a chaotic but enchanting blend of sight, smell and sound. Noise was long tolerated as the price worth paying to live the big city life, but recently the level of noise has become unbearable to many New Yorkers. The number one annoyance for restaurant visitors in 2013 and the most common complaint to the 311 hotline – which increased 16% from 2012-2013 – was noise. The architecture in New York does also not favor a quieter soundscape. Steel and glass in endless unbroken continuation increases the echo and thus, the background noise of the city. This causes a serious health hazard to all New Yorkers on an everyday basis. 

São Paulo, Brazil 

The noise pollution in São Paulo is interconnected with poverty and caused by bottlenecks in transportation. Whilst the poorest population of the city grows, seeing their living conditions deteriorate and their commuting distances increase, the few privileged who can afford to avoid the paralyzed street traffic, go by helicopters. This trend has in a short time become devastating for the soundscape and a considerable health hazard to the broader public. São Paulo is the city with the largest number of helicopters in the world. The second and third positions are of New York City and Tokyo. With around 300 km of metro and rail lines in the city the public transport network is less than half the networks of either London, Berlin or New York. This is set to change. By 2030 the Municipality of São Paolo has promised its citizens to establish a environmental- and noise friendly network of trains, busses and metros to ease the pressure from the streets and improve the livelihood of commuters.

Tokyo, Japan 

The land of quiet is also the land of announcement by sound. In Tokyo, the capital of Japan, more than 40 million citizens ride the rail- and metro network daily. The timing of this tremendous network is orchestrated by an average of one announcement for every two minutes - all made over loud speakers at platforms and in trains. 

“Please wait behind the dotted line” says a ladies voice while at the neighbouring platform a man’s voices, to be distinguishable, inform that “The doors are closing. Dashing to get into the train car at the last minute is dangerous, so please don’t do it.” Previously a whistle was played in between announcements. Today different tunes are replacing it intending to make commuters more relaxed. Understandably, the announcement opera of noise makes commuters guard themselves behind head-phones and ear plugs. 

*All the measurements were taken with either calibrated sound level meters or the calibratable Decibel 10th App. The displayed numbers are the peak sound levels measured. The average sound levels were lower.


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