Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city is rolling out several new noise-muffling measures, but the real problem may be the way Spanish cities are constructed.
Dominoes are a social menace. That’s the gist of new rules brought in by the Spanish city of Seville last Friday. In attempt to reduce noise levels in the town’s streets, the local government has banned people from playing dominoes on café terraces, protecting residents from the un-muffled clac-clac of domino tiles being slapped down on table tops. Public domino-playing is just one of several new offenses being regulated by the city: Seville is also clamping down on bar owners who roll barrels along the street, on televisions in the open air, on motorists who rev their vehicles unnecessarily, and on any bar that sells food or drinks to people who consume them standing up outside. These now-forbidden activities will be punished by a minimum €300 fine (about $400 U.S.), aimed where possible at business owners.
The new rules sound pretty ludicrous; if outdoor dominoes are Seville’s most pressing problem, it must truly be a blessed spot. Still, the problem they’re trying to address is real enough. According to the World Health Organization, Spain is the noisiest country in Europe, the second noisiest in the world after Japan. Over nine million Spaniards live every day with noise levels that exceed the WHO’s recommended acceptable limit of 65 decibels. Cultural factors play some part in exacerbating the sleep disruption this causes. A classic Spanish lifestyle has evolved as a way of managing the country’s frequently hot weather, a climate that means that Seville’s average daily highs only drop below 70 degrees from November to March. Spaniards have mostly given up their siestas, but they still take advantage of cooler nights and go out later than most Europeans. 10:30 p.m. remains a perfectly normal time for a Spanish family dinner.
The Spanish also do much of their socializing out of doors. In its most frowned-upon incarnation, this al fresco socializing takes the form of the Botellon, where young people gather in large groups in public places to drink and chat, sometimes rowdily. It’s not just a youth phenomenon, however. One of the great charms of Seville and other Spanish cities is that it’s perfectly normal to see 50- and 60-somethings out at midnight, chatting over coffee or wine.
This can make sleeping hard for residents who aren’t night owls. Even a mildly heated chat over coffee can keep you awake if it happens right below your windows. As Spain’s population gets older, those who want quiet seem to be slowly winning concessions from people who want socializing as cities across the country tighten up their anti-noise legislation. But while there’s some popular support for noise control, Seville is setting itself up for a nightmare if it thinks it has the resources to patrol and implement laws against what many Sevillanos consider the most basic and innocuous of pastimes.
But is this focus on nighttime quiet missing a major chunk of the issue? According to this hearing-loss awareness site, 80 percent of Spain’s excessive noise is produced by vehicles, while a further 10 percent is caused by industry. People may be more sensitive to nocturnal noise from the street, but the primary culprit for Spain’s almighty din seems not to be nighttime drinkers but planning procedures that, until recently, have been poorly equipped to deal with cars.
By north European standards, many Spanish streets are very narrow, with buildings barely set back from the sidewalk. Even Spain’s many 19th-century Ensanche districts—gridded urban expansions built especially to provide an antidote to older cities' alleys—seem hemmed in compared to, say, Paris. Spanish cities were built this way for good reason: Cool shade was more valuable than light. Street plans like this have helped make Spanish architecture very good at keeping temperatures inside buildings down (one reason, along with lower relative humidity, why the country has avoided the United States’ air-conditioning addiction).
Alas, older streets laid out like this turned into rattling echo chambers when cars became common in the 1960s. New streets weren’t always sensitively planned either, and many Spanish cities built modern apartments high on either side of major thoroughfares. It’s only when you’ve stood on one of these roaring car canyons during rush hour gridlock that you can appreciate that, if Spain has a noise problem, it isn’t just coming from dominoes.
(Top image Jos Dielis/Flickr)