Did You Hear the COVID-19 Pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our way of life in a matter of months. More than a year later, we are still experiencing the pandemic and its impacts. From many people losing loved ones to decreasing carbon emissions, the effect of the pandemic reaches many different sectors. Because of the way that the pandemic altered people’s way of life, noise pollution was bound to be affected as well.  

During the pandemic, more people in urban areas looked to parks and outside spaces for relaxation and exercise. I’m sure you can remember the long lockdown we were put under. Some people decided to spend that time inside to protect themselves while others decided that being in open spaces would be best for their health and mental well-being. This is one positive impact of the pandemic; as people were shut off from typical busy settings, such as the mall, restaurants, etc., they were forced to look to nature for fulfillment. One of the goals of the Noise Project is to introduce people to noise refuges, which can include parks and open spaces that more people actually began utilizing during the pandemic.

I remember the quietness in my own hometown of Queens, New York during the first few months of the pandemic. I live only two blocks away from the main road that stretches all the way from Queens to Brooklyn. It is typically a very busy and loud street at most hours of the day. During the first week of the COVID lockdown in March 2020, I walked to the Rite Aid on this street and couldn’t recognize my neighborhood. I saw only a few people walking, almost no one waiting for the bus, no traffic, and of course empty restaurants and stores. Traffic in Queens contributes greatly to noise pollution there, so if my town was this quiet, I can only imagine how quiet others were. According to the New York Times, sound levels in New York City greatly decreased during the pandemic. Besides the quietness of my neighborhood, one thing that was different was the number of people in the park. Every time I drove by the park, all I saw there were kids. During the pandemic was the first time in eight years (since I was in elementary school) I had gone to my local park. When I went, I had finally found where people were. Besides walking down the busy street, many adults were walking around the park. The park gave me comfort in being around others during the pandemic because of the open space and greenery. 

The Coronavirus Quieted City Noise. Listen to What's Left. - The New York  Times
Image from The New York Times.

A study performed in April 2021, investigated the effects that the pandemic had on three different areas in Boston, an urban area. The study noted that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation found that traffic volume decreased by 67% in March 2020 and by 30% in July (which is considerable as volume increased by 5% from 2019 until prior to the lockdown). This may have led to decreased noise pollution. The study also noted that it is increasingly difficult to practice social distancing in urban areas due to the high population density, hence why so many people looked to outside parks as a solution. During the initial lockdown in Massachusetts though, the government mandated that all children’s playgrounds, state parks, and summer camps be closed. These are the outside recreational facilities they shut down. This is why the study looked into three parks that people still had access to: Blue Hills Reservation, Hammond Pond Reservation, and Hall’s Pond Sanctuary. In these areas, the most common sources of noise were traffic, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, park visitors, and construction. They measured the sound levels in each of these areas (and traffic) and compared it to the pre-pandemic data they got from other studies. 

The study resulted in a number of great findings. For one, they found that before the pandemic, sound levels were highest near the roads in Hammond Pond and Blue Hills parks. Hall’s Pond had the lowest range of sound levels, 44 decibels to 66 decibels, most likely because it had fewer points close to busy roads. During the pandemic, Blue Hills actually had higher sound levels than before the pandemic, unlike the other two parks. The study stated that this was most likely because vehicles were speeding more during the pandemic on the highway that runs through the park. The faster a vehicle goes, the louder it is, so although there may have been a decrease in traffic, it was canceled out by the speeding. This finding is helpful because it means that noise pollution policies should also try reducing speed limits in addition to traffic to reduce sound levels. At Hall’s Pond, pandemic sound levels were lower than before most likely due to decreased activity around the park, including less traffic, construction, and landscaping. At Hammond Pond, pandemic sound levels were also lower than before, most likely due to less traffic. They also found that during the pandemic, average sound levels were lower by about 1.4 decibels when trees had leaves compared to when they didn’t, which proves the importance of nature in noise refuges. 

In another study from 2020, they found that on an industrial level, noise pollution decreased during the COVID pandemic. Mining contributes greatly to noise pollution. Stone crushers have been found to often exceed 90 decibels. In areas with stone crushers (what the study calls “clusters”), the study found that 35% to 68% of the areas have sound levels exceeding 85 decibels (high risk) during the times between 8 AM and 4 PM. These sound levels are very dangerous to human health (see “How Different Sound Levels Can Affect You”).  During the COVID-19 lockdown, the study found that these sound levels greatly decreased. All the areas in the study had noise levels under 65 decibels (normal risk level) during this time (see figure 5 from the  study). This is of course because the mining operations in these areas became non-operational during lockdown. This was commonly the case for other industries, as the pandemic warranted that they close down temporarily. 

Despite all the downfalls that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, it has shown what our world would look like if it had less noise pollution. It is amazing how great the difference in sound levels were once people began to take a moment to pause and be more aware of their surroundings. Hopefully we can learn from the COVID lockdown and better understand ways we can combat noise pollution in a post-pandemic world. I know that I certainly will continue to visit more parks as noise refuges! You can use noise refuges to connect with nature by doing a sound walk for example. A sound walk is where you walk through an environment with the sole purpose of listening. This has been found to help people be more aware of nature sounds like birds and escape their usual noisy, stressful environment. The Noise App has a feature that allows people to suggest and search for noise refuges near them. This makes finding and going to noise refuges much easier, where you can perform sound walks, soundscape therapy, or even meditation if you’d like. What will you do?