Healthy Cities are Quiet Cities

Editor’s Note: Jeff B., an inspirational soul, friend, and intellectual crafted this lyrical reflection. Throughout the piece, he explores the human impacts of an oft-overlooked, yet inescapable aspect of cities: noise.  Jeff’s essay is designed to be read, considered, and acted upon.  

My office is on the corner of two busy downtown streets.

One of these is a one-way street with three lanes.  It’s a 1950s-era design for maximizing auto throughput, still all too common in 2016.  This street allows left turns from two lanes, and it seems that at least once a day, a motorist is unprepared to properly navigate this configuration.  They start to drift into the car turning next to them.  There is sudden braking, a near miss, and a lengthy, punitive horn honking.  I look out the window and see the expressions of disgust on the put-upon drivers’ faces.

Maybe once a week, on average, someone turns the wrong way down the one-way street, a recipe for more honking and an awkward U-turn.  Even the more halcyon moments feature the persistent din of engine revving.

*  *  *

My dad prepared me for it, but I was still in awe.

He had been to the Netherlands and Germany on a couple of business trips, and he immediately noticed how quiet the streets were, even as they teemed with activity.

When I visited the Netherlands last summer, even with his recollection in the back of my head, in small towns and large cities, the auditory calm was a pleasant surprise.  My brain awkwardly grasped for decibels that weren’t there.  My eyes were telling me it was a bustling town center; my ears were telling me it was a department store.

Why are Dutch streets so quiet?  For one, their design renders them in all ways antithetical to acceleration.  Driving happens at a slow-flow pace.  Secondly, instead of multiple lanes of traffic, many main streets have canals flowing peacefully down their center.  In Utrecht, for example, along the pitch-perfect streetscape that is the Oudegracht, people in canoes, kayaks, and low-speed motorboats glide by two stories of people dining, walking, and cycling.

Quiet street, Utrecht
Oudegracht, Utrecht

Finally, and most importantly, there just isn’t a lot of driving, period.  Nationwide, a quarter of all trips are by bike.  In central Amsterdam, half of all traffic is on a bike.  In the university town of Leiden, I counted traffic for 15 minutes crossing a bridge.  There were 232 walkers, 131 cyclists, 12 mopeds, 9 transit buses, and 7 autos.  When I took the train to Assen, I saw what had to be over 500 bikes parked at the station.  There was one car.

Quite street, Haarlem
Pedestrian street, Haarlem

The urban street hierarchy presupposes the human scale, not automobility.  There is a network of pedestrian only streets.  There are woonerfs where auto access is only for parking next to one’s house.  Collectors and minor arterials are often traffic-calmed and one-way, “uitgezonderd” (except for) bikes.  Only when one gets to a major arterial can one recognize the degree of auto priority imbued in almost all American streets, and even then, cycle tracks allow them to also serve as low-stress bike routes.

*  *  *

Healthy cities have plenty of noises.  But this is a time of growing research on the question of how cities correlate with psychological health.  Noise is a mental health risk factor, with evidence of correlation with at least five impacts, including cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, sleep disturbance, annoyance or stress, and hearing problems.  The noise of an urban or suburban activity, like heavy traffic, may constitute an externality, and how often is that accounted for in policy and planning decisions?

Consider the following noise levels in decibels (dB):

* Central Park, New York: 57
* Regular conversation with someone close to you: 65

[70 dB is perceived as twice as loud as 60]

Quiet street, NYC
High Line, NYC

Consider also the types of noise and the duration that you hear them.  For someone who lives 300 ft. from a freeway, the traffic noise might be dampened by distance or a sound barrier, but it is monolithic and persistent.  Traffic volume and speed both impact noise levels.

The traditional sounds of the street—common from the dawn of urban civilization to about the 1920s—are sporadic, varied, diverse, human, entertaining, vernacular.  The New Orleans brass band dancing down the middle of a street in the French Quarter.  The church bells.  The soft sounds of conversation as one walks by an outdoor cafe.

*  *  *

Kitty corner from my office, at that same intersection, is a mini Chinese park.  It is on a small triangular parcel created by a creek running diagonally through the block.  It’s a nice place to be, visually, but its aural environment is encapsulated by those same engines and horns I hear from my office.

Contrast this with the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver, BC, which I visited a few weeks ago.  The garden and park are nestled in the interior of a block in the Chinatown neighborhood, an oasis of calm in the heart of the largest city in western Canada.  Of course, it helped that the neighborhood in general is very walkable, bikeable, and near transit stops.  In fact, half of Vancouver’s trips are made by walking, cycling, or transit, and the figure is probably higher for Chinatown.

Quiet street, Vancouver
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden, Vancouver

It made me realize that, with thoughtful design and planning, we can have all the good things of cities—diversity of people and vocation, social interaction, sharing of cultures, close access to many destinations, and the list goes on—while reducing the externalities that, 150 years ago, started to drive them away.