I’m in the midst of reading the fascinating Noise – A Human History of Sound and Listening, by David Hendy.
Towards the end of the book, in a discussion of our recent ‘search for silence’ – how silence is increasingly valuable in our noisy world – Hendy turns to the soundproofing of buildings, and why it probably isn’t an adequate response to noise.
This passage leapt out at me -
[Writer] George Prochnik says, ‘ Soundproofing is terrific like bulletproof flak jackets are terrific.’ But, he adds, ‘wouldn’t it be better still if we didn’t have to worry about getting shot all the time?’
The answer has to be a resounding yes, for noise can only be successfully addressed if we engage with it in the public arena as a whole.
The comparison with bulletproof jackets reminded me of Chris Boardman’s frequently-used (and excellent) analogy between cycle helmets and bulletproof vests. When civilians start getting shot, we quite rightly focus on stopping people from being shot in the first place. Fitting civilians with bulletproof clothing would be a bizarre response to the danger of death. But precisely the same logic applies (or should apply) with cycle helmets. If people are receiving serious head injuries as a result of a dangerous environment, we should reduce the danger posed by the environment, at source. Fitting protective clothing, rather than dealing with the danger directly, is a retrograde step.
In the same way, we should ask why we even need to soundproof buildings. Doing so represents a ducking of the issue; the environment outside the building will remain noisy, and only the people inside the building will benefit. Noise should, ideally, be addressed at source, just like danger.
Hendy then describes the effect of reducing the need for soundproofing, by the method of making cities ‘silent’ places.
When we have done this in the recent past, the change has sometimes been dramatic. In Dutch cities such as Amsterdam, Utrecht or Masstricht, for instance, pedestrians and bicycles have long been given priority over motor traffic as a matter of policy. As a result the soundscape in their streets and piazzas and arcades is strikingly different from Britain’s car-ravaged town centres.
Far from being deafeningly loud – or, indeed, totally silent – these Dutch cities provide their citizens with a vivid spectrum of sounds that have been smothered elsewhere: street vendors, footsteps on cobbles, church clocks and bells, conversation, laughter.
That’s a particularly accurate description. Rather than silence, Dutch cities are actually filled with noise; lots of different noises, mingling with each other. The low level of each noise creates a palette of sound, unlike London or other British cities, where one noise – roaring motor traffic – tends to dominate (or even drown out completely) all others.
By contrast, a Dutch city centre typically has a far more diverse range of sounds. Motor vehicles form just a part of the broader spectrum of sound.
On the David Hembrow field trip back in 2011, organised by the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, I vividly remember cycling back into the centre of Assen with a handful other members of our party, at about 9pm in the evening, from a meeting about 2-3 miles outside the city. You can see and hear a small bit of that trip through the city centre below. Most of the noise is actually coming from my (poorly held) camera, and from the wind.
I remember being struck, at the time, by how beautifully quiet the city was. Not silent, but with a gentle and harmonious mix of the occasional car, bicycles, and people chatting. These kinds of noises are necessary. As Hendy writes,
Reining in the oppressive noises of industry or traffic has not put silence in their place instead. This is not only because it would be unrealistic to do so; it’s also because we don’t actually like it. Total silence sets our subconscious alarm bells ringing.
In many ways the Dutch approach has made cities sound like villages; places where everyday noises like conversation can be heard, and where no single noise is dominant, or oppressively loud.
Noise, or the lack of it, is just another aspect of what makes a town or a city a pleasant place, and I should really have mentioned it as another aspect of the value of reducing motor traffic, in my previous post about the amenity of urban areas.
Hendy concludes by writing
… The Dutch had a slogan during a noise-reduction campaign back in the 1970s, and maybe it’s time to revive it. It simply said, ‘Let’s be gentle with each other.’ That might sound a little wishy-washy to contemporary ears, bruised and bloodied as they are by all our disputes and anxieties and suspicions. Yet it reminds us that even today sound has to be managed not by technology or force but by ethics. It requires a world where none of us is noticeably louder than anyone else, and where none of us is cowed into deathly silence, but where all of us can hum and whistle and talk to each other – and hear others doing the same – as we go about our daily lives.
It’s interesting that the Dutch 1970s anti-noise campaign appears to have coincided with their campaign against danger on the streets. In many ways noise and danger go together, and it’s perhaps not all that surprising that the two issues were tackled at the same time; they were both symptoms of the broader problem of an excess of motor vehicles in towns and cities.
Indeed, the more intimidating and hostile streets to cycle on in London are precisely those places where it is all but impossible to have a conversation with someone cycling next to you (or, more likely, behind you). Not only is motor traffic so loud conversation is difficult, but that same motor traffic makes it hard to even cycle in a way such that conversation would be possible at all.
So – let’s have streets safe for cycling, but also safe for talking. Even safe for doing both at the same time.