Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
A new map lets you analyze noise complaints in the Big Apple.
Traffic, neighbors, loudspeakers, jackhammers, vacuum cleaners, dump trucks, ice cream trucks, air compressors: It’s no secret that New Yorkers live with an endless array of noise.
But the city is not uniformly cacophonous, and New Yorkers do not uniformly respond to sound. Noise complaints placed to 311, the city’s non-emergency service hotline, vary a lot by noise source, time of year, hour of the day and neighborhood.
Where and why noise is happening, and who is bothered, is valuable information for residents, city planners, community leaders and those entrepreneurial members of the burgeoning noise-control industry.
That’s why cartographic design firm CartoDB went full throttle on mapping how noise is perceived in the Big Apple. Programmers mapped publicly available 311 noise complaint data from 2015 by Census tract, and layered on a dashboard that allows users to study those complaints against more than a dozen different metrics.
You will find, for example, that Manhattan is by far the loudest part of New York City—or at least the place residents complain about it most. Across all boroughs, busy arteries generate lots of calls. Check out Broadway, Grand Street, and Meeker Avenue in Williamsburg.
Types of noise complaints are local. In Harlem, loud music and parties get on neighbors’ nerves…
While Gowanus, in Brooklyn, has an ice-cream truck issue.
People seem to perceive noise pretty differently depending on the season. Compare noise complaints made in the summer...
...to noise complaints made in the winter. A marked increase! Maybe carolers and jingle-bells explain the difference. Or maybe New Yorkers are more irritable when it’s cold.
Surprisingly, a pretty small number of noise complaints appear to be related to construction. To help explain the impact of construction on noise complaints, the map includes the option to display (as yellow diamonds) where capital improvement projects happened in 2015. To an extent, those projects are correlated with more complaints, though that’s not uniformly true.
Which is a pretty good reminder: It’s incorrect to assume that more noise means more calls, because not all New Yorkers use 311 as a way to resolve their problems. For example, a recent paper by the social scientists Joscha Legewie of New York University and Merlin Schaeffer of the Berlin Social Science Center examined 311 complaints about noisy or law-breaking neighbors. It found that New Yorkers living sandwiched between racial enclaves were much more likely to call 311 on each other than those who lived along more clearly defined racial boundaries.
“Instead of going to your neighbor and asking them to turn the music down, you’re reaching out to an external authority to intervene,” Legewie told CityLab in August 2015. “Probably because you don’t feel comfortable knocking on their door.”
That’s an important finding, especially taken alongside the CartoDB map, which shows that areas of gentrification demonstrate high rates of noise complaints.
“Heavy commercial real estate, capital projects, and new construction tend to be associated with rapid shifts in income level and happen to reflect where many noise complaints are prevalent,” CartoDB community technologist Erik Escoffier tells CityLab in an email.
Do conflicts between new and old residents of gentrifying neighborhoods lead to more noise complaints? That’s a topic for another story. For now, draw your own conclusions by playing with map yourself.