Women fishing in Fair Haven Beach State Park

Combating Noise Pollution

All of this information about noise pollution can be really overwhelming—which is why it’s also so important to educate ourselves about how we can combat noise pollution. 

Some researchers have suggested an individual approach to combating noise pollution. In this Ted Talk, Dr. Mathias Basner, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, recommends a variety of personal methods of combating noise pollution, from seeking out quiet spaces whenever possible, to wearing noise cancelling headphones and lowering one’s “noise footprint” to improve the lives of those around you. Wearing safety equipment is also particularly important if you work a job with the highest risk of noise induced hearing loss, such as construction jobs as well as jobs in the mining, wood, and product manufacturing industries. All of these suggestions are great short-term, individual solutions. However, as we’ve pointed out, noise pollution is a systemic issue, and there’s a lot of privilege to unpack when thinking about how we combat noise pollution. 

For example, when thinking of quiet spaces, many people’s minds turn towards nature, as we can see in the following PhotoVoice submissions. 

“I think of silence as a lack of noise, which allows me to hear other sounds more clearly. In the photo below, taken in Orkney Springs, VA, my daughter, nieces, and I experienced such a profound lack of street and airplane noise that it amplified the sounds of nature. The frogs, crickets, birds, and little girl squeals made up the background noise. We tried to hear the worms but were unsuccessful.” – Catherine Pham

“Mind Over Issues: Silence is a platform for thinking about the unthinkable which leads to innovative thoughts.” – Yao Foli

“One of the images that come to mind when I think of silence is the joy of a quiet Sunday morning in my pj’s facing the trees and birds from my third floor balcony.” – Marilú Lopez Fretts 

We know that plants, inside and outside, can help absorb sounds and noises that can contribute to noise pollution as stems, leaves, and bark can all absorb noise. Plants with fleshy leaves are particularly good for noise absorption. So, there’s a good reason that our minds connect silence to images of nature—green spaces and other outdoor areas can often act as “noise refuges” which shelter us from the chaotic sounds of everyday life. 

But, access to green space is an issue of socioeconomic and racial justice. One study centering on the entire U.S. found that, while lower income communities of color in cities have parks in closer proximity, they have a lower percent of green space than richer white neighborhoods. Another study, which was based on cities’ “ParkScores”, which are calculated based on access and quality, found that U.S. cities with higher incomes and a lower percentage of Latino and Non-Hispanic Black residents have significantly higher park scores than other cities, with majority-Latino cities being particularly disadvantaged. Also, even when new green spaces are created in low-income communities of color, public agencies are not always acting in communities’ best interests. 

In multiple studies, researchers have shown that environmental gentrification, which occurs when wealthy residents move into low-income neighborhoods due to the creation of new green spaces and displace former residents, is not an “unintended consequence” of urban planning—in fact, public agencies will often create new green spaces in underserved neighborhoods with the goal of encouraging gentrification (Gould & Lewis, 2017; Immergluck, 2009; Loughran, 2014; Roy, 2015). 

The equity issues in trying to protect ourselves from noise pollution is part of what makes projects such as the NOISE App so important. Access to noise refuges, and natural spaces in general, is an essential part of protecting ourselves from noise pollution, and creating a database for people to find those refuges is especially important. Additionally, by measuring sounds where we live, we can add to the growing body of work which is pushing cities to address noise pollution through their governments. Oftentimes, low-income communities and communities of Color are disproportionately affected by noise which they have no control over. Some studies support that having no perceived control over noise in your community can lead to “learned helplessness”, which can actually make the effects of noise pollution, such as sleeping and reading disturbances, even stronger. In order to address this inequity and work towards policy change, we need to learn more about the impacts of noise on our communities. For example, John Annoni and other Community Science Collaborators from Camp Compass Academy are currently working with the City of Allentown, Pennsylvania on Allentown Vision 2030, a plan for urban development which includes a specific focus on studying and minimizing noise pollution as the city continues to grow. Raising awareness of the sources and effects of noise pollution, and using the NOISE app to study how noise impacts communities, is the first step in addressing noise pollution.