Roaming noise and other unwanted sounds. Protecting the public domain


Joost Smiers

Feb, 2021
It is a majestic sight. Very low, above the centuries-old center of Amsterdam, immense large planes descend towards Schiphol Airport. This spectacle is accompanied by sound. Strangely enough, that hardly bothers me, probably because it is not so hard as it is closer to Schiphol. That seems strange because there are many types of sound, including soft ones, that I cannot handle. I know people in my area who are crazy about it.

However, it could be worse. At the wrong time in the wrong place, a few years ago, a young French conductor passed a just starting motor whose exhaust, without a decibel killer, cut his musical future with one bang. His ears are literally screwed up. He no longer tolerates an orchestra and chamber music is not doing much better. Differentiation in hearing is gone; he no longer hears timbres, no overtones, oboes, and clarinets hurt him.

It might be clear, this text is about sound, whether it is loud or soft, desired or undesirable. But this study is even more about the use of public space: who fills it with sound, who is allowed to do that, with what kind of sound, who likes it, and who is bothered by it, or even gets sick from it? These are no small questions, which actually receive minimal attention. That is understandable: they are almost too complex to touch. Compared to this, the uproar about smoking was a piece of cake: you can get lung cancer and other ailments, and you can saddle people in your area who don’t smoke with those ailments, in addition to the fact that they don’t like the smell. That is all about it. And how difficult it was, and still is, to publicly draw attention to it and do something about it.

Photo_ Tobias Begemann_ CC BY 4.0

This is different with sound. Many kinds of sound surround us – we live in a cacophony of sounds, as it were, from which it is difficult, even if you wanted to, to withdraw. In addition, one kind of sound is pleasant to you, and the other is too bad for you to say, or vice versa. It then seems that receiving sound is a subjective matter: you like it, or you don’t. However, it is not that simple. The core quality of sound is that your ears are always open and sound therefore enters you by definition. If we realize that, it is not enough to say that it is only subjective if you are bothered by certain sounds. Whichever way you turn or turn it, they enter you without being asked and target something in your brain, a state of mind, possibly damage.

The beauty of the ears is that they are always open and you can therefore always be warned of possible danger. At the same time, this is a «gift» from nature that means that you cannot or hardly keep unwanted sounds out of the door —or better out of your hearing. Too much noise you have not asked for and that is actually not necessary can be compared to trespassing. It penetrates you, and you cannot do anything about it, unless you take firm measures such as earplugs, triple windows, or moving, but that does not help against unwanted noise in the public sphere, in the public space, so on the street, in shopping centers (how public they are, that is disputed). Of course, no one can expect it to be whisper quiet outside on the street. And of course, every society has its own portion of sound that belongs to it. But what is included, and what is not strictly necessary, and how does this shift from time to time? Opinions and interests can clash about this, and they do. That is what makes this topic so exciting at the same time. First of all, because it is not high on the social agenda. But secondly, because the number of noise sources —which can cause nuisance or joy— is almost endless, they can be appreciated differently, and often seem almost self-evident, which need not be so.

The beauty of the ears is that they are always open and you can therefore always be warned of possible danger. At the same time, this is a «gift» from nature that means that you cannot or hardly keep unwanted sounds out.

To illustrate this, let me briefly list the types of sound that are circulating in our societies. Before I do this, I would like to clarify something. In this text, I will usually talk about sound that is desired or not and less about the word noise. Whatever the latter, it is usually loud. That can irritate those who are not pleased with that, but a lot of unwanted noise is not at all loud, think of the sound of the neighbour’s television that creeps through the wall of your house at night: probably not loud, but just as likely good annoying.

What kinds of sound surround us in public space? Do not fear, luckily we will not hear everything I am going to list at the same time. A significant source of noise —and probably nuisance— is traffic. We think of cars, buses, trams, airplanes, scooters, motorcycles with an open muffler, advertising planes, but also of race circuits, dirt tracks, pavers, the type of asphalt that has been rolled out, and the permitted maximum speed. A close second, perhaps first in the sound production, comes from the immediate area where you live: neighbors with their quarrels, stomping walking, loud talking, grumpy anger, leaf blowers, mowers, television, accompanied by festivities in the garden or on the balcony with barbecues and drinks. Screaming children in schoolyards and playgrounds can also do something. Then we must not forget buskers, loitering youths, spouting fountains, student houses, groups of tourists, Airbnb trolleys, sirens and a single animal shelter. What naturally plays a role are cultural differences about what is or is not acceptable sound. The ambient noise certainly also includes something that I refer to as roaming noise: people, usually men, who scream in the street or from boats in the canal at night and do not please the sleeping fellow man. Is that the case with church bells, carillons and amplified prayer calls from the minaret?

What is for one person his or her lust and life can be disturbing for another: the nightlife. There are café’s where it is quiet, but there are also where the solid sound of voices and music swirls out, and the terraces are lively. Festivals, oh those fantastic festivals, and the basses that carry their sound for miles, the clatter of building the stages, the sound checks and the festivalgoers who don’t go home quietly. Brass bands and concert bands have to practice, of course, and that doesn’t work on silently. Is it quiet on the beach? Most of the time not in the wide area of beach tents. Enough has been said about fireworks. What remains almost unsaid is the deafening noise of wind instruments, percussion and basses that orchestral musicians suffer from and damage hearing.

Of a completely different order are the various types of noise from industry, commerce and agriculture: drilling, planing, spraying, pile driving, whistling sirens, the supply and removal of goods from factories and farms, the parcel deliverers, tractors, hum of fans, diesel engines of ships, sound cannons against birds, and road workers and construction workers who want to hear the music from their radios. Energy transition fine, but those wind turbines, not in my backyard? And why should you hear background music in shops, shopping malls, waiting rooms, stations?

In short, what I am discussing is a challenging topic. What can help a bit is to determine what sound is inevitable for the rolling on of our society, and what is absolutely unnecessary to sound so loud. We cannot do without industrial activities, but is it really necessary for music at festivals to sound so loud? I know that even discussing this topic is like cursing in church to some. Still, I’m going to try: with the angle that unsolicited and not necessarily necessary noise causes trespassing.

It enters your ears and you can’t do anything about it. The big challenge, of course, is, can we make the sound of activities that we consider necessary for our society a bit softer? There is a lot to be gained in this area. That is indeed happening. ProRail, the Dutch railway infrastructure company, for example, has announced that by 2025 almost all freight trains will run significantly quieter. In the port of Rotterdam, experiments are being conducted to ensure that boats moored at the quay receive electrical energy from shore —shore power— and therefore no longer need to run their diesel engines continuously, which will be a blessing for local residents who can be freed from this noise pollution.

When we talk about noise in public space, what do we think about it? First of all, the interests of filling the public space with sound can clash considerably. Inevitably, then, it is a blatant fact that unwanted sound – no matter whether it is loud or soft – can cause tension and lead to illnesses. Hearing damage can also arise due to loud sound that is indeed desired, for example, at a festival.

Since the public space belongs to us together, it is not fair for some to over-occupy that space in terms of sound, and others to have to undergo it. It has to be a little give and take.

Our ears are disabled. They are no longer of this time. Our hearing permanently connects us with our environment, keeps us always informed of what is going on there. The problem is, that environment is no longer a forest or savanna where we must have lived as primates or early humans. For the majority of the world’s population, it is the big city or a more or less urbanized space. As a result, the hearing receives more impulses than in the distant past because it is now subject to a lot of constant stress, irritation and even disruption of sleep. So there seems to have been a disharmony between the senses and the artificial environment that we as (modern) humans have created.

The focus of my research has always been on the public space. That is the cutlery that we all share, regardless of whether it is the streets, squares, parks, meadows or nature reserves and the air above, or whether it concerns the sea and the air in which fish and birds have to do it. trying to save. No one can escape those public spaces: you do your shopping, go to work, visit family, girlfriends and friends, watch a movie in the cinema, and not to forget the restaurant or cafe to eat and enjoy all kinds of delicious food. drink, in good or useful company. Even if you stay at home, you have neighbors who may or may not take it easy.

In that public space there is the sound of people talking, laughing, shouting or arguing, of all kinds of traffic that rushes past one more than the other, of appliances, of what industry, trade and agriculture have to offer in terms of sound, of festive occasions such as festivals and other joys, musical instruments that please the ears, but also burden the ears, church bells and minarets, windmills, children playing loudly or not, background music in shopping centers and shopping streets. It is a cacophony of sound that we hear passing by.

It must be said, not everything comes at the same time. And there are people for whom quiet environments are not desirable, for them there must always be noise. However, it cannot be ruled out that, if they live near a distribution center, they may not be able to properly handle the noise of trucks and their constant loading and unloading, to say the least.

Photo_ Marco Verch_ CC BY 4.0

Since the public space belongs to us together, it is not fair for some to over-occupy that space in terms of sound, and others to have to undergo it. It has to be a little give and take. In order to create clarity in the discussion about this, I have always tried to make a distinction between: which sound can only be loud —it is inevitable— and on the other hand which sound can be a bit softer without too many problems. For the latter, for example, festivals were eligible, and motorcycles that tear over dikes or through the mountains in good weather. Of course, festivalgoers only really enjoy music and motorcyclists enjoy their sound explosions to the fullest, otherwise they wouldn’t. Yet the balance tends too much to their pleasure, at the expense of the people who have to listen to it and for whom it is broken ear. They cannot escape that.

Much more can be done to reduce noise in public spaces than is thought possible. It is the combination of awareness and political will to strike a more or less correct balance between excitement and tranquility.

On the other hand, there is noise that can hardly not exist: traffic, industry, agriculture, you name it. It is inevitable and is part of the progress of our societies. The challenging question then is, do the sounds of those activities have to be so piercingly loud, or perhaps not even so loud, but unrelenting, endlessly nagging? Would it be possible to filter or encapsulate those sounds more? Even better, to make them a little softer? If the technology stands for nothing, then it should be possible. That may cost something, but these are investments that are more than worth it. It can ensure that crowds of people are not exposed to noise that causes them stress. Such tension is often a dormant process, it doesn’t kill you immediately, but it is a «silent» killer. Stress can lead to insomnia, heart complaints and so on and so much worse. If that can be avoided, why not make an effort as a society?

It is nice when people and companies, who fill the public space with their sound a little too broadly, realize that it can also be a bit quieter. And therefore do what is necessary to cut back. But of course it doesn’t work that way. Hence, our governments are faced with two big questions. First of all, realize that noise in the public space is something that needs to be considered. It is a fact that deeply affects public health and the well-being of citizens. Secondly, much more can be done to reduce noise in public spaces than is thought possible. It is the combination of awareness and political will to strike a more or less correct balance between excitement and tranquility.

I deliberately did not aim for the universal realization of silence in the public space. That would go too far; it is neither feasible nor desirable. Of course, those who want silence should have the chance to find it. What matters more is that there is a calm rest in our living environments. Not too noisy, but also not the silence of the grave, but, of course, with an occasional peak up or down. That is part of it.

The core issue is protecting the public domain, and ensuring that noise makers do not bite too much of that cake, causing a nuisance to others.