polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Mapping Noise in N.Y.C.

by Katia Savchuk

Last week, we wrote about the finale event of stillspotting nyc, a two-year project that explored noise and silence in the city through a series of studies, events and installations. Urban health researcher Robyn Gershon and data and mapping expert Sarah Williams were among those who spoke at the event. We interviewed them about their findings on the cacophony of urban life.

Screenshot from an interactive map of New York noise complaints. Source: Civic Data Design Project

Sarah Williams directs the Civic Data Design Project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Along with a colleague from Columbia University's Spatial Information Design Lab, she created a Noise Map of New York's 311 noise complaints.

What does the Noise Map tell us about 311 complaints in New York?

One of the most interesting artifacts about the mass amounts of data that we now collect about the places we live, including 311 noise complaints, is that people not only tell us what they are doing, but also how they are feeling. Every day New Yorkers create a collective psychological map of their relationship with noise, stillness and ultimately their sensory reaction to living in a city with 8.3 million residents. By viewing the complaints literally and spatially, one can see many stories of the city — its neighborhoods, residents and conflicts.

What surprised you most about the map?

I think the most surprising part of making the map was seeing the actual complaints and therefore understanding the emotions behind the calls. There was rich data in quotes like. "Loud video games downstairs since 8pm... must stop it." This made the project much more than showing that the Lower East Side and Washington Heights have more complaints — it showed the reaction of New Yorkers to where they lived.

Why did you think it was important to map noise complaints?

Noise complaints tell us about living conditions. They allow us to explore how the places we live affect the way we live. 311 data shows us how often conflicting uses of the city cause tension. Analysis of this data helps us to understand the ways in which urban design effects how we experience the city on a sensory level. More importantly it can allow us to understand the design needs of certain communities.

Passengers in the New York subway at rush hour. Source: Katia Savchuk

Robyn Gershon is an epidemiology and biostatistics professor at the University of California, San Francisco. Her studies on New York's mass transit system showed that noise levels regularly exceeded guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization.

What noise-related health risks do New Yorkers face, and what are the effects?

New Yorkers face much the same as any other large U.S. city. There are multiple sources of excessive noise, the main ones being leisure time activities (think noisy bars, restaurants, movies, clubs), occupational, mass transit (especially systems more than 75 years old) and traffic. There is also the intermittent but highly irritating nuisance noise, like noisy neighbors, car alarms and sirens.

For nuisance noise, the effects are irritability, sleep disturbance, perhaps increased stress levels. For truly excessive levels, say over 85 or 90 decibels, and for longer periods of time, it can affect your hearing. In the short term this means muffling, ringing or buzzing, and in the long term chronic and excessive exposure to noise will lead to hearing loss. This is irreversible and not readily addressed with hearing aids.

Why are noise levels in the mass transit system so high?

They are high because the system has characteristics that make it highly sound reverberant. There is metal on metal equipment, older equipment and crowded lines, all packed into dense reverberant spaces.

Why is it so uncommon to hear of "noise-related health risks" in cities?

In the European Union, they are very concerned and have passed a great deal of proactive legislation. In the U.S., the Office of Noise Abatement was closed down, and the EPA does not really concern itself with this. It is an environmental health hazard, and the U.S. does not support research or training of new students in the field. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders until very recently has focused on basic biology and not population-based health issues related to noise. It is under the radar for the U.S.

Thank you both for answering our questions!

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