Too much noise? No, too little silence

In a recent op-ed piece for the New York Times, author and silence activist George Prochnik eschews ranting about noise in favor of cultivating “a passionate case for silence.”  Prochnik (whose recent book “In Pursuit of Silence” further explores this theme) suggests that doom-and-gloom about noise and its well-documented health effects may be losing traction with a public weary of “self-compassion”.  Indeed, despite noise being the number one environmental complaint in New York City year after year, last week’s International Noise Awareness Day offered its hometown little more than free hearing tests behind City Hall.

Prochnik’s perspective is an intriguing one, and he finds promise in efforts to integrate “oases of quiet” into the urban soundscape.  Referencing Swedish research on urban environmental noise (to which we have directly contributed), he reminds us that noise control efforts that are nearly futile along busy urban streets can rather create truly quiet, healthful “quiet sides” in backyards and courtyards between buildings.

Of course, this approach is neither Swedish nor new— pre-war neighborhoods in Manhattan are chock full of residential buildings boasting sheltered courtyards—but Prochnik reminds us that this luxury is not often afforded to residents of disadvantaged areas.  Not to mention, courtyards that may have provided a quiet oasis in pre-air-conditioning days now carry the modern acoustical burden of concealing scores of unsightly air-conditioning units—often giving these New York City courtyards the irony of being as noisy as the streets they defend against.

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