Sound and Health: Cities

Is our blaring modern soundscape harming our health? Cities are noisy places and while people are pretty good at tuning it out on a day-to-day basis our sonic environments have serious, long-term impacts on our mental and physical health. This is part one in a two-part series supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation about how sound can be designed to reduce harm and even improve wellbeing.

Many of the sounds we hear are created with very little thought for how they interact with each other. Some of these are byproducts of modern technologies, like engine sounds or the hums of computers. Others are made intentionally, like alarms or cellphone rings. There are the sounds of overhead planes, air conditioning units, stores pumping out music, sirens and then people talking loudly to be heard over the rest of the noise. Then there are cars, which may be the biggest culprit.

“The sound of cars is inescapable, which is depressing if you think about it,” laments design critic Kate Wagner. “Cars tend to drown out other things like bird song, human speech, the rustling of leaves, conversation — things that maybe are more personal or that we hold [to have] a higher aesthetic value.”

Joel Beckerman, a sound designer and composer at Man Made Music , believes we need a new approach to sound — one where we decide what we hear in our everyday environment. He calls this Sonic Humanism. “[It’s] really about how [we can] use music and sound to make people’s lives richer and simpler,” he explains. He wants sound to be something we’re thinking about all the time. But while cities have more noise laws than ever, over half of the world’s population live in urban areas experiencing way too much noise.

And when it comes to city sound, volume is also not the only thing hurting us. “It’s not just how loud the sound is … it’s the character of the sound .. it’s whether or not you have control over the situation,” says Erica Walker, a researcher at the Boston University School of Public Health and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grantee. She believes that the impact of sound is all about context. Walker is working on a project called the Community Noise Lab. She is measuring the sources and intensity of environmental sound so we can better understand how sounds impact our neighborhoods and our health.

Living so close together, we are going to make sounds that will cross over into other people’s spaces, and that’s not always a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why we love living in cities.“Some communities say that they appreciate the sound levels,” says Walker. “They like hearing their neighbors at the barbecue, [which creates] a sense of community — so there is a positive aspect.”

Health problems come in part from a lack of agency. “Noises cause stress, especially if we have little or no control over it,” explains Mathias Basner, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He studies how noise affects our sleep. “The body will excrete stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that lead to changes in the composition of our blood and of our blood vessels, which actually have been shown to be stiffer after a single night of noise exposure,” he says.

Some cities are already taking a more thoughtful approach. Joel Beckerman explains that “in the Tokyo subway … each station has a little tune associated with it. If you know anything about the Japanese subway system, it is packed. If you’re in the middle of a car and you missed an announcement because it’s noisy, you’re sunk — you’re going to miss your stop.” He wants a future city dominated by natural sounds but also sounds that we’ve consciously chosen. Some might find these pleasant while others may find them annoying, but we’ll all get more room to decide for ourselves either way.

Support for this episode was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is working to build a culture of health that ensures everyone in America has a fair and just opportunity for health and well-being, which includes exploring how our current or future environments will impact daily life.

Thanks to Man Made Music for contributing to this episode as Executive Producers and provided editorial support and soundscapes for this special series. Learn more about Sonic Humanism.


Production Credits

This special episode of 99% Invisible was produced by Leila Battison and Dallas Taylor, with help from Sam Schneble. Sound design and mix by Colin DeVarney. Music by Sean Real.

  1. Mandi Ausman

    I work with Vision impaired kids, and teaching them to cross a street along side electric cars is almost impossible. Traditionally we would tell them to listen for the stop and surge patterns of the cars. Electric cars do not have a sound for them to listen to. As of now, there is not a fix for this.

  2. Patrick

    I live in Japan about an hour outside of Tokyo in what most Tokyoites would call “the country” and Japan is loud. The worst offender, mopeds and motorcycles, they are everywhere all the time and down the narrowest street and they just make me grate my teeth when they go down my super narrow street. Besides them, you have horribly (fuel efficient) under-powered cars with drivers putting the accelerator to the floor to get up our hills and the whine is just the worst. Add to that singing trash trucks and the over used city-wide PA system that blasts news I could get on my phone and finally old-school political trucks blasting messages like the vans we used in the US during the 50s with the megaphone. All in all, Japan is horribly loud. But I will say this, I love the JR train jingles! They play whenever the train is about to leave and each one is different all over the country.

  3. John B

    There is an irony that you make a programme about noise pollution unlistenable by heavy handed overlay of sound effects and music obscuring the text. Don’t be another podcast I abandon as I can’t hear the presenters

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