// Making noise: culture and the city soundscape
Why do we get so annoyed at our neighbours playing loud music, but we can zone out the racket of traffic noise? Should we have a right to hush in the city, or a right to make noise? Placemaking consultant BEN STEPHENSON looks at the ways in which the sounds of the city impact us.
This blog post was conceived following interesting conversations with Bristol’s night time adviser and protector of our 'right to the night' Carly Heath, and Sarah Jones-Morris, of Landsmith Associates and Bristol Soundwalks. Those chats were respectively about our right to make noise, and our right to urban tranquility. Both of them were brilliantly made cases, and I've been trying ever since to work out whether they are by nature incompatible. I also want to explore the cultural aspects of noise-making in the city.
Whenever I'm in the area, I go and sit in the neo-Byzantine Westminster Cathedral for a half-hour battery recharge. I particularly love this unfinished building's blackened vaulted ceilings, but what I go for most is the soundscape, where even the smallest noises are amplified and combined into a kind of melted rush. Each visit serves as a reminder that churches in busy city centres can be undervalued as refuges of tranquility, useful even to godless folk like me to snatch a chance to reflect.
But even churches have their less benign side. In Bristol there is a local debate raging about church bells waking people up on Sunday mornings. People seem very angry about it. There's a sense that something else is happening on top of the ire about the tolling; something that might reflect questions about power, and about who gets to stake a claim to the city soundscape.
City noise and its impact on us seems rarely considered, until we register the value of its absence. Remember how quiet the city became when planes were grounded at the beginning of the pandemic - that sense that something internal, almost imperceptibly tense, had suddenly relaxed. That time reminded us that our relationship to urban noise is more involved than we realise, and for many, this sense of peace is something they intend to protect at all costs.
My default position when it came to city-dwellers complaining about noise, even if I didn't quite put it like this, was always: 'if you want peace and quiet, go and live in the Cotswolds, cities are supposed to bustle.' But it’s more complicated than that. People in social rented accommodation have little choice about where they live. Others might be attached to their locality for all sorts of reasons, determined not to be driven out by noisy neighbours.
What we know is that there are significant health impacts from urban noise. The World Health Organisation evidences sound pollution as the second biggest cause of ill health in the EU after air pollution. Clearly this is no issue to dismiss lightly. In fact, many believe we should have a right to peace and tranquility in our cities and, as more of us move into urban centres, the issue of how we police exposure to noise is increasingly important.
The Tranquil City Manifesto seeks to deliver some of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, and particularly Goal 11, which relates to cities, by changing the urban landscape to one that affords us spaces of solitude, areas to connect with nature and to roam. The Hush City App aims to do something similar, with the slightly oxymoronic feature allowing users to 'Crowdsource your favourite quiet areas'. The app is a triumph of citizen science, helping the people of cities like Lisbon and Berlin identify pockets of peace and consider how they want to protect them.
Such aims are reflected in the National Planning Policy Framework's (NPPF) paragraph 123, which states, rather vaguely, that Planning Authorities should "...identify and protect areas of tranquillity which have remained relatively undisturbed by noise and are prized for their recreational and amenity value for this reason.”
Other than the NPPF and the noise complaints mechanism, there is little relationship between the statutory landscape and the regulation of noise. The National Park Cities movement states that more of our city space will need to be given over to activity that is by its nature quieter - urban farming, wellbeing, sustainable transport and habitat protection, and there may need to be greater focus on how we get there in a way that affords everyone equal access to the quiet pockets that these activities will create.
If we accept that we have a need for hush in the city, should we object when noise breaks the silence? Many feel the urge, certainly. In the UK, 289,000 noise complaints were recorded in 2019/20, with the pandemic increasing that volume by 28%. London figures are reflected below:
Source: Science Direct
When we think about the sources of noise complaints, we might imagine the noise from bars and clubs, but the sounds that irritate people vary from construction noise to buskers. In Waterloo, where I used to work, residents would complain about the squealing sounds of braking trains and the sound of our street market being set up, as though they hadn't noticed they'd bought flats sandwiched between a market and a major rail terminus. Elsewhere, friends of mine who live opposite a popular pub, and who are entirely reasonable in all other things, have become fixated on policing its noise, waiting for a raised voice a minute after closing time, as if to confirm the lack of care the pub takes with their wellbeing.
The noise-makers have their champions however. Simon Hughes, MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark did much to protect an Italian bakery on Bermondsey Street from growing complaints about their 5am bread making, arguing that the incoming residents had failed to do their homework about the pre-existing industrial uses before buying there. The bakery was ultimately sold off for flats and a restaurant.
That street battle predated a more famous one just down the road at Elephant & Castle involving the Ministry of Sound, the office-to-residential developers of adjacent Eileen House and Southwark Council. With an application in the works for the conversion, the Ministry of Sound's Chief Executive Lohan Presencer could see the writing on the wall. He claimed that noise complaints from residents would see them shut down, the latest, he argued, in a long line of music venues lost to the same fate. Hundreds of musicians from Paul McCartney to Sandi Shaw joined a campaign in support.
We were too long in recognising the economic and cultural benefits of our noisy nighttime sector and organisations like Sound Diplomacy have since worked hard to demonstrate the need for them. In the interim, Presencer and other champions like Mayor's Night Tsar, Amy Lame brought to popular attention the concern that noise complaints were contributing factors to the loss of 35% of London's music venues between 2007 and 2015. Such worries about the loss of culture in the capital's night time economy ultimately gave rise to Agent of Change planning guidance, established in the GLA's Grassroots Music Venues Rescue Plan.
The Agent of Change advisory rule sought in effect to ensure that developers of new sites next to noise-making industries adequately sound-insulated their units, and allowed existing noise levels to continue at the same level. In practice however, Agent of Change guidance has been complex to enforce, almost unworkably technical, and problematic in scope. There is also no guarantee that a planning condition will prevent the council from being caught up in a noise dispute in future.
Noise easements (private property agreements set out in covenants between parties) were also used in the Eileen House case. In that case the easement effectively agreed that the Ministry of Sound had over time gained the right to make noise in that location. As the Rescue Plan says, the noise easement gave "the Ministry of Sound the legal right to make noise at existing levels so that future residents of the neighbouring development buy into’ the club’s ongoing operations, rather than being able to object to it”.
One the one hand, we have good reasons to push for policies that protect urban tranquility, and equally good reasons to protect the right to make noise. Like much of the debate about urban life, the responsibility of our policymakers is to try to strike a balance that allows for discretion in policy application. Easier said than done, but this is the landscape.
I don't think this is the end of the story though. Like those church bells in Bristol, in my dealings with such complaints in the past, there often seem to be unacknowledged layers of assumption about the intention of the noise maker on the part of the offended ear that elicit fear, anger, envy and even unconscious bias.
It's worth considering that the possible presence of a cultural or wealth divide might affect the way city noise is made and heard.
For example, here we have a story about dominoes players in a Westminster Square. The players claim that the game in West Indian culture provokes combative but friendly degrees of volume, while residents overlooking the square have been complaining about the commotion outside their windows. The dispute recently ended in the courts, with the dominoes players successfully arguing there were cultural and race factors at play in the Council's attempts to silence them.
That Hush City app we looked at, in which citizens identify areas of tranquility, has been embraced particularly in tourist cities, suggesting perhaps that a sudden seasonal increase in the visitor population and noise levels might exacerbate the effect of loss of tranquility. Are additional cultural factors at work here too? Might those lamenting the loss of tranquility also be concerned about the increase of 'outsiders' in the city?
The app's website states that '...quietness is becoming a luxury available to only a few of us', reflecting a possible wealth divide in terms of access to urban tranquility / exposure to noise. Received wisdom suggests that the quieter, more tranquil areas in city centres correlate with higher property prices, and this theory is supported in an American study in 2017 that found that poorer neighbourhoods are nearly two decibels louder that wealthier ones.
Finally, the implication in the Bermondsey Street bakery case was that the noise dispute was, at least in part, an issue of gentrification, with the traditional industries at threat from the city financier incomers. The suggestion was that the wealthy and powerful had moved in and were working to shape the area, including the soundscape, to suit their lifestyles. Speaking again to my own experience, noise complaints seemed more regularly to come from the wealthier households, eager to protect their tranquility, than the poorer ones, more likely to be affected by noise.
If we really want to understand why we are able to zone out some city noises and not others, it seems worth considering that not all decibels are created or distributed equally. Whether we have the right to tranquility, or the right to make noise, we can't achieve these in a meaningful sense without recognising the cultural factors and wealth disparities that distort the aural experience of different city dwellers.
For me, that means a recognition of an 'aural commons' - a city soundscape that is collectively owned, that is protected in a balanced way, and that offers everyone the same right to a proportionate, healthy, productive urban soundscape. This won't keep everyone happy all of the time, but it should help to manage expectation equitably. It also means collecting data, like Brussels does, to understand exactly where the hotspots are and to plan accordingly.
In the meantime, as the planes return to the skies and drown out the birdsong, it's always worth taking some time to conduct a brief audit of the sounds you hear in the city and how they effect your wellbeing, how they are regulated, how they reflect systems of power and influence, and how things might change.
BAS Consultancy is a placemaking and place management consultancy based in Bristol and London, run by Ben Stephenson. BASCo's work focuses on urban culture, food, economic development, identity and network formation.
Contact Ben: 07976 92 32 62 | firstname.lastname@example.org