UPDATED: Is it sound or noise? The answer sometimes depends on your perceptions but noise is now widely regarded as a health issue, not merely an annoyance. One solution is coming from acoustic artists who are dreaming up creative solutions such as converting traffic noise into pleasant droning sounds that can be pumped through speakers into a park.
Noise – defined as unwanted sound – has long been treated by authorities responsible for shaping and managing the built environment as a source of “annoyance”.
But this paradigm is shifting since a report from the World Health Organisation was released last year that provided unequivocal evidence that prolonged exposure to traffic noise, extremely common in cities, is a health issue.
It might also kickstart an emerging design approach that is more sympathetic to the world of sound.
According to Professor Lex Brown, an environmental planner at Griffith Universit’s Cities Research Institute and an expert on noise issues in cities, environmental agencies and other relevant government agencies have spent around 40 years dealing with noise through the lens of “annoyance”.
The updated WHO guidelines released last year added weight to the existing research that linked chronic noise exposure to a range of health issues such as coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, annoyance, sleep disturbance and children’s learning and hearing impairment.
Brown says it’s the first time this has really been proved and so environmental noise has been upgraded to a health problem, rather than just a quality of life concern.
He says the conversation with environmental protection agencies and other authorities is only just beginning and this mentality will “take a while to filter into the system”.
So what noises are causing the health issues in urban areas?
Brown says that transportation is the most problematic source of noise in Australian cities, with rail and aircraft an issue in spots (flight paths, for example) but road traffic is typically the worst offender.
He says it’s infiltrated most of the urban and suburban areas to the point that 1 in 5 urban
areas are experiencing a “too-high exposure to noise.”
Worst offenders are rail and aircraft, with road absolutely the worst
How can you mitigate harmful noise?
Brown says that the mechanisms for tackling noise in the urban environment fall into two main categories: controlling it at the source or at the receiver end.
He says measures to control transport noise at the source are generally “pretty good”.
These include limitations on the noise generated by cars, planes and other vehicles allowed to operate in Australia.
There’s also path control methods that can be used once a noise source is in place. Brown says this is where planning comes in, such as keeping residential developments away from major roadways.
But he says this planning approach appears to have “fallen out of fashion” and that he’s seen an increase in apartments being built near roads.
There are other options for mitigating noise from roads and rail such as noise barriers, which “work but they are usually pretty ugly unless they are made to blend in”.
“And they only work where you don’t need access to the road in that spot.”
At the receiving end of the noise source, design choices such as insulation in buildings can also effectively mitigate noise from traffic. But this can lead to problems in warmer climates because windows will need to be shut, although ventilation can fix this problem in some instances, Brown says.
Who is responsible for keeping noise under control?
When it comes to controlling noise, it’s generally perceived as a state problem with noise control acts in each state and territory intended to protect people from noise. This regulation generally covers the “classic noise problems” such as industrial sources, late night noises and barking dogs.
But again, the real problem is transportation noise. Brown says this is where responsibility for the acoustic environment gets complex and can be split between different layers of government.
Airways, for example, are a federal government responsibility. And roads are also problematic because states control some major arterial roads and local councils run the local streets, with the noise control responsibilities arranged accordingly.
Brown says it doesn’t help that these rules are then often written to protect roadways from prosecution so that “what should be noise control legislation protecting citizens from aircraft and roads might then manage to exclude most of the major roads owned by states”.
An institutional change in thinking is occurring, but it’s early days.
Brown says now that noise has now been proved to be a health problem, he expects to see some push back because of the many “vested interests” in not doing anything: developers wanting to build apartments along major roads for example.
Overall though governments are fairly receptive to the idea that environmental noise is a health problem.
Brown says the big leap will be taking a proactive rather than a reactive response – that is, anticipating noise concerns before they arise rather than dealing with community complaints as they come in.
And the place to start is with design and planning, such as keeping dwellings away from highways and implementing insulation schemes.
Beyond noise mitigation towards designing urban sound – and acoustic ecology
The next challenge is changing the values of designers in this field to treat sound as something that can add value rather than as a “waste” product that needs to be removed.
This is where Brown’s work has started to intersect with acoustic ecology and the likes of Jordan Lacey, a creative practitioner and researcher working in the acoustic ecology space.
Lacey says the “soundscape” movement in design – much like a landscape, but for the acoustic environment – has been around for about 40 years but only now are government and industry starting to listen to these voices.
With a background as a musician, Lacey has been researching the potential to improve the experience in parklands and other urban areas by embedding sounds.
He says this is not necessarily a novel idea and that there are a number of permanent acoustic art installations around the world including the Harmonic Bridge in Massachusetts, which essentially picks up noises from the above motorway underpass and distorts it to play a pleasant droning sound through speakers under the bridge.
But what is definitely an emerging notion is incorporating sound and how people perceive it into the design of the urban environment – a process typically focused on the visual.
Lacey told The Fifth Estate that he thinks there is “a huge potential” for planners and designers to tap into this way of thinking and foster unique soundscapes that become associated with a certain place.
This way of thinking also feeds into the realm of biophilic design, with the sounds of nature such as birds chirping and water trickling considered desirable sounds.
He also says that defining sound as annoying or pleasant is not always as simple as it seems, and that careful soundscape design should consider the complexities of human perception. For instance, some people are pragmatic about the existence of noise, while others find being in nature an unsettling experience.