Patt Morrison for March 26, 2012

Can we silence the sounds of the city?

San Francisco Sees Rise In Residential Construction Projects As Tech Sector Grows

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Workers pour concrete at the construction site for the Channel Mission Bay housing development on March 23, 2012 in San Francisco, California.

City dwellers have come to accept the cacophony of sounds that make up a city - cars, motorcycles and garbage trucks, barking dogs, helicopters, the neighbors’ crying baby or teenage drum prodigy – as a necessary evil.

Demographic projections show that younger people want to move to the big city for proximity to jobs, cultural stimulation and public transportation. But for those who are considering urban relocation, the idea of non-stop noise might give them pause.

Since the beginning of civilized society, putting up with the neighbors has been a part of life, but today’s mechanized, automated, leaf-blower-and boom-box world presents new challenges.

"[Noise pollution] is a term that didn't really evolve until the 1970s when consumer advocates representing a lot of concerns about other environmental pollutants had created that nomenclature, I think its wasn't too dramatic to say hey look we've got a problem." said R. Thomas Jones, dean of the College of Architecture and Environmental Design at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. "At one point 40 to 50 million Americans were diagnosed in the 1970s with having some form of hearing loss related to the environmental noise around them."

With noise pollution, thoughts can be scrambled, sleep interrupted and conversations are drowned out. How do we make living in denser urban environments pleasant and desirable? Builders currently have certain standards and building codes they have to adhere to, but they don't completely fix the noise problem.

"The codes began to be updated in the 70s and 80s to set minimum standards for the sound between your apartment and the one next to you," said Jones. "But quite frankly those standards are the kinds of thing that still allow a little bit of noise to come in."

The trick, say urban planners, is not to block out sounds completely, but to disguise obnoxious, intrusive and earsplitting noise while allowing fresh air to circulate along with the sounds we naturally enjoy – birds singing, leaves rustling, falling rain.

"We can actually start the planning of buildings into actually reducing sound outside the buildings as well," said Nick Antoni, acoustic group leader of Arun, a global engineering firm. "We can provide more tranquil and calm spaces screened from freeways and roads and plan our buildings appropriately."


Is it possible to live in the urban jungle without drowning in noise?


R. Thomas Jones, dean, College of Architecture and Environmental Design at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Nick Antonio, acoustic group leader for Arup, a global engineering firm that specializes in acoustic techniques to reduce urban noise impact

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