The sound of silence

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.

This entry was posted in Car dependence, London, noise, Pedestrianisation, Subjective safety, The Netherlands, Town planning. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The sound of silence

  1. Christine Jones says:

    Excellent post. This is possibly fundamentally why I think I’m planning to move back to Holland. I love being English, the Brits, the language, the country side, the BBC etc but the abusive way we are expected to go about our daily lives, forced to drive (ask most people and they will say they have no choice), no buses after 4pm, pot holes, being sworn at or cut up by drivers who want to over take only to catch them up at the lights, being made to feel that taking my children on my bike with me might as well be child abuse and so on.
    It’s not the people, it’s the way they’ve been treated by the transport system that has done as little as possible now for a couple of generations. Even the road safety campaigns ran by countless relatives of victims and victims seem to get minimal attention here, even the police are part of the speed culture. The car is king. I love cars, they can be fantastic fun and think they are very useful but the way they dominate here has taken our health, our freedom and our quality of life.

  2. bicycledutch says:

    Great post. Like many things, this is something the Dutch really take for granted… a whole generation just doesn’t know better anymore. In the 1970s and 80s Dutch cities really were a lot more noisy.
    Another example of what a Dutch city centre sounds like can be heard in this video of Utrecht (4th largest city in the Netherlands). Of course there are also streets with more motor traffic, but traffic is diverted to just a few of those busy streets so that the rest of the city can stay more quiet.

  3. back in 2005, an American friend of mine had the following to share about that:

  4. tobydjones says:

    “…in London… it is all but impossible to have a conversation with someone cycling next to you”
    You don’t have to be in London. Walking along Lynn Road in Ely, a small town north of Cambridge, I can’t hear my 6 year old next to me because of the traffic. (And don’t get me started on trying to cross that road!)

  5. Jim Moore says:

    Great post. It’s as if the people of the Anglosphere are like the Belcerebons of Kakrafoon Kappa from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but instead of having to mask with endless chatter our every thought from being broadcast via telepathy, we’ve been sentenced to a lifetime of quiet-destroying noise from motor vehicle traffic wherein we can’t hear ourselves think.

    The Dutch “Let’s be gentle with each other” campaign is akin to the Irish musicians’ saying of: “Don’t be the loudest instrument in the band.”

    I’m finding there’s many good things to learn from the “quieter” peoples living on the fringes of the loud so-called mainstream.

  6. Arthur says:

    What a lovely post. It gave me an entirely new way of thinking about cycle helmets. Currently I live in a country (Australia) where cycle helmets are compulsory…

  7. Fred says:

    I totally agree with the eliminating/reducing the risks at source. The much maligned Health and Safety Executive who, despite popular opinion, have sensible requirements based on evidence, use ERIC. This is a hierarchy where the first two options should first be exhausted before moving on to the last two: Eliminate, Reduce (at source), then Inform (those who will be exposed to the risk or are in a position to help manage it) & Control (by use of hard hats and protective measures). Essentially this is a ‘design things to be safe, but if a risk cannot be removed make sure people are adequately informed and protected’ (and if you can’t adequately protect people you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing).

    However on the noise front, tackling the noise at source would mean shooting the dawn chorus & gagging the neighbours…

  8. Pingback: Quiet on the Set! | The Socratica Method

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