Sound and Health: Cities

Roman Mars:
Thanks to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for underwriting this special two part series about the power of sound to affect and influence our health and wellbeing. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is working alongside others to build a culture of health for everyone in America. Learn more about them at www.rwjf.org.

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Nearly everywhere we go, we’re bombarded with human made sound. It’s especially bad in cities.

Joel Beckerman:
Cities in the past. Think about where you’d have horses and buggies. You know, you hear clopping. You’d hear banging of wood against stone. Very noisy experiences.

Roman Mars:
That’s Joel Beckerman. He’s a composer and founder of a sonic branding and design company called Man Made Music.

Joel Beckerman:
Then cars came along and were sharing the road with these horses, and so not only did you have the horses at one rate of speed, the cars at a different rate of speed, so lots of honking of the horns. It must’ve been a cacophonous mess.

Roman Mars:
But things got even worse when cars came to dominate the roads.

Joel Beckerman:
If you fast forward to really what the soundscapes were, let’s say in the 50s. So in the 50s it was all about muscle cars. It was all about the loudest car you could have – Mustangs, Corvettes – that were really, really loud.

Roman Mars:
We might not have muscle cars anymore, but our cities are still noisy places. We’re pretty good at tuning it out, but our sonic environments have serious impacts on our mental and physical health. So is the blurring modern soundscape slowly killing us? This is part one of a two part series all about how sound can be designed to create more wellbeing and reduce harm.

Joel Beckerman:
We really respond to sound quicker than any other sense. It really becomes the arbiter of all our senses.

Roman Mars:
But many of the sounds we hear are created with very little thought for how they interact with each other. They could be a by-product, like engine sounds or the hum of a computer, or they could be made intentionally, like alarms or a cell phone pings. Add to that the sound of overhead planes, air conditioning units, patios and stores pumping out music, sirens and people talking loudly to be heard over the rest of the noise.

Kate Wagner:
You have trucks, buses, other kinds of transit and then you know, mechanical things like construction.

Roman Mars:
And of course there are cars.

Kate Wagner:
The sound of cars is kind of in escapable, which is depressing if you think about it.

Roman Mars:
That’s Kate Wagner. You might know her from her fantastic blog, McMansion Hell, she’s an architecture and design critic. And she cares a lot about sound.

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 like that we hold in a higher like aesthetic value.

Roman Mars:
Joel Beckerman says we need a new approach to sound. One where we decide what we hear in our everyday environment.

Joel Beckerman:
It’s really about how do we use music and sound to make people’s lives richer and simpler.

Roman Mars:
Joel 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. Sound is measured in decibels, the louder the sound, the higher the number. A quiet library is around 40 decibels.

Kate Wagner:
Car noise can be anywhere from like 65 to 80, to even 90 decibels if you’re really close to the highway.

Roman Mars:
The decibel scale isn’t linear. That means 80 decibels isn’t twice as loud as 40 it’s actually 10,000 times louder.

Kate Wagner:
If you’ve ever like had to pull over on the side of the highway cause maybe you have a flat tire or something. You get out of your car, the sheer noise that you hear is quite startling. Just like the sheer mass of sound that is an eight lane highway.

Roman Mars:
The average level of car noise in a busy city, is about the same as having your TV on at top volume all the time. Of course, some city noises are designed to be loud.

Kate Wagner:
Police sirens and ambulance sirens are 120 decibels.

Roman Mars:
We might try to escape all of this by sticking in a pair of headphones and cranking up the volume, but depending on what you’re listening to, headphones can be over 90 decibels, prolonged exposure to anything over 80 decibels will lead to hearing loss. So before we go any further while we’re talking about the idea of sound in health, do yourself a favor, get into a little bit quieter area and turn this episode down a couple of notches. Your ears will thank you. When it comes to city sound volume is not the only thing hurting us.

Erica Walker:
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.

Roman Mars:
That’s Erica Walker. She’s a researcher at the Boston University School of Public Health and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grantee. For Erica, the impact of sound is all about context.

Erica Walker:
I lived in an apartment building and above me were these neighbors and they had two small kids and the kids used to run across the floor 24 hours a day.

Roman Mars:
The sound wasn’t more than 50 or 60 decibels. That’s the same volume as the background music in a coffee shop, but Erica could feel that sound every moment of every day.

Erica Walker:
I think for different people it’s different things, but for me it was the rumbling. It’s that low frequency sound. You can’t hear it but you know it’s there and you don’t know where it’s coming from but you can feel it.

Roman Mars:
Living so close together, we’re going to make sounds that will cross over into other people’s spaces and that’s not always bad. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why I love living in the city.

Erica Walker:
Some communities say that they appreciate the sound levels, like they like hearing their neighbors at the barbecue because it makes it feel like a sense of community, so there is a positive aspect.

Roman Mars:
But when we don’t have control, that’s when health problems start. Mathias Basner is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He studies how noise affects our sleep.

Mathias Basner:
So noise is stress, especially if we have little or no control over it. And so the body will excrete stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that lead to changes to the composition of our blood, and of our blood vessels, which actually have been shown to be stiffer after a single a night of noise exposure. People who are irrelevantly exposed for a prolonged period of time have an increased risk for cardiovascular disease including high blood pressure and myocardial infarction, but also in some studies a higher risk of stroke.

Roman Mars:
A myocardial infarction, by the way, is another term for a heart attack.

Mathias Basner:
Although the risk increases are relatively mild, you know, relative to other exposures like smoking, for example. This still constitutes a major public health problem because so many people are exposed to these different noise sources and the World Health Organization published a report on the burden of disease by environmental noise. And they basically showed that in the Western European member states alone, 1.6 million healthy life years are lost every year due to the exposure to environmental noise.

Roman Mars:
There’s a study from the University of Michigan that looked at the effect of lowering sound exposures by five decibels. That could save $3.9 billion in healthcare costs and it would also save lives.

Roman Mars:
There are so many other ways that noisy environments are bad for you. Think about a loud restaurant. There’s the sound of the open bar, thumping music. You’re shouting at your friend and everyone else is shouting at their friends too. It’s pretty stressful and when we get stressed, studies show we reach for comfort food and alcohol.

Roman Mars:
Noise also hurts our academic performance and screws up our mood. It hurts our concentration. Basically, we are being killed by noise and some of us are being killed faster than others. More after this.

Roman Mars:
Support for this special two part series, Exploring The Power Of Sound To Influence Our Health, comes from the Robert Wood Johnson 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 wellbeing, which includes exploring how our current or future environments will impact daily life. Learn more at www.rwjf.org.

Roman Mars:
We know noise causes health problems, but they can be especially pronounced if you live in a less affluent neighborhood.

Kate Wagner:
If we live in a place, for example, with lots of environmental noise, as do many people in American cities, especially people of color and low income families, then we have to deal with essentially this mechanical sound that can shave off sort of the high frequencies just through repeated relentlessness.

Roman Mars:
Neighborhoods near factories, highways and flight paths are the loudest and usually they’re the least expensive places to live. This is a noise equity problem.

Kate Wagner:
We should have the choice of living in a space that is not doing damage to us without having to move. We should have the agency to good health, good hearing health, and we should have agency over the things that could harm us, essentially.

Roman Mars:
The most obvious solution is to make laws. Some cities carve out quiet hours. You can’t run a noisy leaf blower or practice drumming in your garage at night or else you’ll get fined. But there’s a couple of problems with noise abatement laws. For one thing, they’re often used to target vulnerable people.

Kate Wagner:
Noise abatement laws sort of always singled out powerless people, people whose livelihoods impeded the sort of middle-class vision of a quiet or orderly or bustling city, et cetera. Sort of like what the sort of bourgeois idea of what the ideal soundscape would be for the city.

Roman Mars:
The very first restrictions on city noise came in the early 20th century in New York. A rich woman named Julia Barnett Rice campaigned to silence the horns and whistles from tugboats in the nearby ports. All these noises were bothering her in her riverside mansion. It’s not hard to see the thread of connection from someone like Julia Barnett Rice and someone like BBQ Becky, the white woman who called the police on a black family having a barbecue last year in Oakland.

Kate Wagner:
It was the beginning of what we call gentrification, which is pushing out those who rely on the city for work, in order to satisfy the sort of aesthetic tastes of the wealthier people whose opinions were more of a concern to those in power. This is very much both a literal and a sonic displacement.

Roman Mars:
The other problem with noise laws is that they aren’t very effective.

Erica Walker:
So the way we currently regulate and measure sound in our communities is by using this decibel.

Roman Mars:
That’s Erica Walker. Remember the decibel measures how loud something is, but most sound meters only listen to a specific range of frequencies. The kind that we hear with our ears, that’s called an A-weighted system.

Erica Walker:
This A-weighted system that tells us that it’s only the sounds that we process through the auditory system that are important.

Roman Mars:
But there are some sounds we don’t process with our ears. Once the pitch gets low enough, we no longer hear it but feel it instead.

Erica Walker:
It’s completely vibrational. So it’s just essentially that feeling. So when you’re in a community that’s in a flight path and you say it’s 65 A-weighted decibels, you’re subtracting out the components that come from the lower frequency sound. So you’re leaving out a huge part of the story. Not only is that a flawed metric, they’re using this metric to determine who’s eligible for soundproofing criteria.

Roman Mars:
Erica is working on a project called the Community Noise Lab and she hopes that by taking a much wider range of frequencies into account we can get a better grasp of how sounds are affecting our neighborhoods and our health.

Roman Mars:
In the meantime, Kate Wagner says that there are steps everyone can take to make things sound a little better.

Kate Wagner:
You can make acoustics changes to the spaces you’re in. There are sort of architectural and design choices that we can make to make our spaces a little bit quieter. You can always choose to sort of beef up the insulation or have a floating floor or any other sort of expensive solutions that are more structural too isolating noise. You could also hang thicker curtains, which is cool because velvet is in.

Roman Mars:
Velvet curtains might be a solution to noise problems in our home, but addressing the noise from cars and industry requires a fundamental change to the way we live.

Kate Wagner:
Often the things that are making the most noise, especially sort of industrial noise, are the things that are perhaps not exactly the healthiest for the environment. For example, it takes a lot more noise to have a natural gas plant, or drill, or do what have you for any kind of sort of extractive purposes, than it does to have a solar farm, which is almost entirely silent.

Kate Wagner:
The quietest city I’ve ever been in that was a major city, was Helsinki in Finland. I was astonished because the Metro or the subway trains and the buses and whatnot, they’re silent. The train stations are very quiet.

Roman Mars:
That’s partly because the majority of their trains are electric, but it’s also down to the design of their stations.

Kate Wagner:
From a mixture of materials, sound absorbing materials, and also psychoacoustic tricks like pumping in noise that has this weird reverse effect of making things seem quieter, which is a technique used in offices as well. The Fins are able to make spaces quieter and the idea that they should be quieter seems to be more popular there.

Roman Mars:
Perhaps their quieter public spaces play a small part in making Finland reportedly the happiest country in the world.

Kate Wagner:
It’s a country that is so taken into account the public good from all aspects, things like health, child care, social services, a robust welfare state, and things like their outlook on sustainability.

Roman Mars:
So cleaner, quieter vehicles make you happier, and when things are less noisy, there’s a great opportunity to create a richer and more useful sonic landscape.

Joel Beckerman:
Electric cars don’t naturally make a sound, so if you’ve ever had one creep up on you, it’s a really, really scary experience.

Roman Mars:
Joel Beckerman says this silence of electric cars can actually be a drawback. Total silence is not a good thing. In fact, Joel says that electric cars need to make noise or else they won’t be safe.

Joel Beckerman:
It’s not for the people in the car. It’s for the pedestrians to know that the car is coming. But the opportunity is also to create a personality for the vehicle, for the electric vehicles.

Roman Mars:
He actually worked with Nissan to create an identity for their new electric car. Here it is coming right at you.

Joel Beckerman:
In this case, what we were looking to do was create a car that had a personality, which is really an association with clean energy. One of the things we knew is it’s going to be frictionless. When you hear a car accelerate, if it accelerates very quickly, let’s say, and there is a sense of really smoothness – lack of friction – there is almost a natural ambiance to it. We actually used natural sounds, but it still sounds like a car and it absolutely had to because we don’t want pedestrians to hear it and say, “Oh, what’s that?” and get hit by the car.

Roman Mars:
Joel wants a future city dominated by natural sounds, but also sounds that we’ve consciously chosen. Some cities are already taking a more thoughtful approach.

Joel Beckerman:
In the Tokyo subway station, each station has a little tune associated with it and if you know anything about the Japanese subway system, it is packed. So if you’re in the middle of a car and you miss an announcement because it’s noisy, you’re sunk, you’re going to miss your stop.

Roman Mars:
The Tokyo trains have a short jingle unique to each and every station along the line. Like this one for Ikebukuro station on the Yamanote Line.

Joel Beckerman:
These little tunes that show up at each station helps you understand where you are and also they’re pleasing. They’re they’re not a screaming announcement.

Roman Mars:
We could live in cities full of intentional sounds with soundscapes that we’ve chosen. You might find some of these new sounds really pleasant or really annoying, but the nice thing is you’ll get to decide that for yourself because you’ll be able to hear them all.

Credits

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.

Comments (3)

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  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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