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Cacophonous Politics of Noise

In 1913, the Futurist painter Luigi Russolo wrote a manifesto encouraging readers to “walk across a great modern metropolis with ears more attentive than eyes.” In the early 20th century, Futurists heralded a new machine age powered by cars, industrial cities, electricity, and trains. Within the sounds and light of new industry, the Futurists optimistically sought new forms of experience. The train, for example, was seen not only as a faster, more efficient means of transportation, but it was also a new mechanism for seeing the world. Landscapes became blurred for passengers, and hearing a clamorous train pass by was a way to break free from mundanity. While the Futurist’s desire to inspire acceptance and admiration of frightening new machine age technologies is admirable, it is now hard to retrospectively look at the Futurists without noting their obliviousness to the pollution inherent in the technology for which they were calling.

While much attention is now being paid to the environmental harms of fossil fuel use, noise pollution has often been overlooked in pollution abatement efforts and their accompanying debates. Noise pollution has traditionally been considered an interpersonal issue. However, considering recent evidence of the impact that noise pollution has on the world’s health and productivity, noise pollution should instead be framed as an urgent political issue. Framing noise pollution as a societal concern, as was successfully done with other forms of environmental pollution, may allow for a true tackling of noise pollution where legislative measures have failed.

Debates over noise are often framed as bourgeois worries – historically, noise has often been linked with income, and therefore occupation. The silence of one’s apartment correlates with the view above the city street one has. In fact, wealthy New Yorkers often ask contractors to sound insulate their apartments with fittings such as acoustic barrier insulation on pipes and ducts, vibration-absorbing rails, and floating floors that can easily total to $200,000. The issue of city noise was the motivation for many high-income families to adopt a suburban living style.

One of the first anti-noise campaigns was led by Julia Barnett Rice, a wealthy woman annoyed by the sound of tug boats. Rice’s campaign in 1906 essentially linked an upper-class status with warranting a reprieve from the sounds of lower class work. Only two years later, in 1908, New York City Police issued General Order 47 to combat “street ruckus” created by street vendors and street musicians. By the 1930s, street vendors were largely stricken from city streets as a result of numerous noise laws. Early noise abatement laws demonstrate the desire for those in power to claim a right to silence.  

Still today, noise pollution levels tend to be highly influenced by income levels, and even race, of a neighborhood’s inhabitants. New airports are often built closer to poor communities of color. Additionally, police sirens and low-flying helicopters are two of the loudest noise polluters. UC Berkeley found in 2017 that neighborhoods made of at least 75% black residences had 4 decibels higher than neighborhoods without any black residents. Kate Wagner, a graduate student in acoustics at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, argues that policing sounds are often most inflicted upon neighborhoods of color, causing noise pollution to even become a form of violence and disenfranchisement. The disproportionate impact of noise pollution on communities of color should raise concerns of noise pollution acting as a form of environmental racism, not only in terms of its influence on violence, but also on health.

Noise pollution may have started as a class issue, but there is increasing evidence to justify the framing of noise also as a health issue. Recent studies have shown that noise pollution can cause everything from elevated blood pressure to increased risks of hospital admissions and death from stroke, coronary heart disease, and cardiovascular disease. Noise has also been shown to impact productivity, as noise can often distract workers while at their desks and deprive them of sleep (especially impactful to night shift healthcare providers). Therefore, noise pollution should not just be framed as a nuisance, but as a true public health issue affecting everyone, especially minority communities that suffer from more noise pollution in general.

The right to make noise, however, is also often cited as a free speech issue. For example, during the Occupy Movement, the issue of drivers receiving tickets for honking their horns in support of protesters brought to light potential conflicts of free speech and noise. While such an issue requires complex consideration of free speech rights, considering the right to make noise in any legislation is crucial. There is no denying that the right to make noise is often tied with one’s class and position within society. Considering the balance between noise and free expression can also be taken up as a design issue.

City planners struggled with the issue of whether to encourage use of sidewalks as vibrant, and therefore loud, social spaces. Le Corbusier preferred quiet, utilitarian streets in his Plan Voisin for Paris designed (but never constructed) in 1925. Corbusier said that streets were a “relics of the centuries, a dislocated organ that can no longer function” and even sought to design what he called “streets of quietude.” Meanwhile, famed NYC urban planner, Jane Jacobs, saw the street and the sidewalk as a vibrant space for use and enjoyment. On a visit to Philadelphia, Jacobs chastised a street in front of a housing project as “boring”  because no one was utilizing the street. Corbusier is now largely seen as overly idealistic regarding the ability to centrally plan a city, while Jacobs is heralded for having been attuned to the way individuals actually engage with the city. Cities do not have to become hushed libraries, rather they should make greater efforts to reduce street noise from cars and machines and limit the time periods when loud street noise occurs.

Legislative initiatives have largely helped decrease noise pollution – laws often serve best as a means to uphold social norms, not lead the charge. For example, NYC has a “no honking” law, which fines drivers $350 for honking their horn in a non-emergency situation. Tickets are rarely written to honkers and the city removed signs reminding drivers of the law after realizing enforcing such a law was a lost cause. A cultural shift regarding noise is likely necessary to create lasting change. More attention paid to the health impact of noise will be an important start. Additionally, a cultural shift away from the “right to make noise” as championed by early American industrialists should be moved toward a “right to silence.”

In the meantime, “quiet spaces” should be expanded to allow more individuals to seek refuge from noisy environments both to improve productivity and public health. In terms of boosting quiet spaces for productivity, initiatives such as the Amtrak’s Quiet Car could be expanded to more venues. “Quiet zones” have become a staple of urban planning – separating residential zones from commerce and industry. Noise abatement laws, however, have overly focused on wealthy neighborhoods.  As more people return to the city living environment, greater emphasis placed on “quiet times,” such as permitted construction hours, could be crucial. Also, greater urgency with noise pollution is warranted, and may even be sparked, as more attention is paid to the environmental racism potentially occurring from noise pollution.

The Futurist’s “machine age” has surely arrived and we are now paying for it with our health. While noise may seem like a simple annoyance not worthy of deploying political capital, recent research that indicates that noise impacts health and productivity should justify a shift as a public health concern. Furthermore, consideration of class and race within the noise pollution debate should spark greater urgency within the topic. Noise serves a crucial role in our everyday lives – it is through breaks in silence that ideas are communicated, rhythm put into space, and connection with the surrounding environment cultivated. Silence, however, is also a form of communication. It is only through a crowd’s silence that a speaker is able to convey their thoughts. Silence and noise both have their place, but without silence all that remains is white noise.

Photo: Umberto Boccioni, sketch of “The City Rises”

About the Author

Tristan Harris '20 is the Associate Section Manager for the Culture Section of the Brown Political Review. Tristan can be reached at