People walk down a street full of outdoor dining tables
In Madrid, a bustling street life can keep residents awake. Francisco Seco/AP

Across Spain, 12 million residents are exposed to excessive noise. In Madrid, residents, lawyers, and officials want everyone to zip it.  

It’s after 2 a.m., and I’ve been awake for several minutes listening to the bark of a dog on the street. The windows of my second-floor apartment are open to let in Madrid’s crisp autumn air. I’m waiting for the dog to stop so I can go back to sleep. But the barking continues, so I get up to investigate. Who knows—maybe the dog is in trouble, or perhaps the owner is hurt?

It’s neither. When I pull back the curtains, I see two people, one Labrador, and a ball. The dog, no doubt delighted to run on a street devoid of traffic, is enjoying the game of fetch. The barking, the laughing, and the loud banter are reverberating through the neighborhood and I want to stick my head out of the window and scream, “Shut the f@&ck up!”

But I don’t do that. Nor do any of my neighbors.

In the five years I’ve lived in Madrid, noise has been a constant companion. There are drivers who think honking their horns continuously and together will resolve any and all traffic jams. In the center of the city, there are late-night bars and discos that spill the action and the noise onto the surrounding streets. There is botellón, a tradition of drinking bottles of alcohol with friends on street corners, plazas, or in parks. Illegal but very popular with young people, botellón has even led some residents to leave their loud neighborhoods, said Antonio Cano-Vindel, president of the Spanish Society for the Study of Anxiety and Stress.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates noise to be the second-largest trigger of health problems, surpassed only by air-quality issues. In addition to stress, high noise levels are associated with cognitive impairments, sleep disturbances, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and even premature death. In a 2016 study published in the Environmental Research Journal, researchers from the Institute of Health of Carlos III and from the Autonomous University of Madrid concluded that, among people aged 65 or older, a one-decibel (dB) increase in regular noise exposure can result in death due to such conditions as myocardial infarction, ischemic heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or diabetes.

The WHO recommends an exposure to no more than, on average, 40 decibels (dB) a night. Across Spain, close to 12 million people—about one-fourth of the country’s population—are continuously exposed to higher-than-recommended levels of noise, according to a recent report from the European Environmental Agency. Road traffic is cited as the main offender, followed closely by railways, airports, and industry.

Yet the report didn’t account for the noise that, according to many, causes the most aggravation in Spain: ruido del ocio, or noise produced by people’s leisure activities.

“The noise has a subjective component,” said Jorge Pinedo, the founding member of the Association of Lawyers Against Noise. “It bothers more when it’s perceived to be useless. [Hearing] ambulances, firefighters, or the police, people aren’t too bothered because [they see it] as useful noise.” But when noise drifts from a bar, he added, “that’s when people can no longer bear it.”

The Association of Lawyers Against Noise has been working to help reduce noise in the country for the past 20 years. Founded by four lawyers, Pinedo among them, today the Association is active in every province of Spain. Their cases have reached as high as the Supreme Court of Spain and the European Court for Human Rights, and they’ve been successful in both punishing the offenders and promoting zoning regulations aimed at reducing noise.

When I shared my surprise that neighbors don’t seem to react to havoc right underneath their windows, Pinedo shrugged. “I work in environmental law,” he said. “If someone comes in contaminated by water or intoxicated by fumes, everyone expresses their solidarity. However, the one with the noise is [deemed] a spoilsport. [People say] ‘This one doesn’t let us live.’...There is a pejorative component there.”  

Spain is a Mediterranean country that loves its outdoor lifestyle, and the attitude of vivir y dejar vivir—“live and let live”—seems to be the sentiment behind this disapproval. But it wasn’t always like this. Manuel Fraga, who worked as the Minister of Information and Tourism during the Franco dictatorship and later assumed the post of Minister of the Interior, coined the phrase “the street is mine,” explained Francesc Daumal i Domènech, a Professor at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia. Right after Franco’s death, “if there were more than three people on the streets, the police would tell them to disperse,” Daumal i Domènech said. “All of this created [a movement]. After we could finally go out on the street and express ourselves, we took it and made it our own. The street was no longer [Fraga’s]—it now [belonged] to all people.”

La Movida Madrileña, the “Madrid Scene,” was at the forefront of this cultural change. Following Franco’s death and propelled by the free expression in the newly democratic Spain, artists, musicians, and writers challenged the restrictions of the dictatorship. Tierno Galván, Madrid’s Mayor during the Movida, became known for calling on people to join the movement and to claim Madrid’s streets as their own. “We want Madrid to be a live city, and its liveliness depends in large part on the liveliness of these plazas which we are reclaiming for the people,” he said in a famous 1984 speech. The phrase Madrid nunca duerme—“Madrid never sleeps”—was born.

This celebration of freedom and liberty happened in other Spanish cities, too—Barcelona, Vigo, Bilbao, and Sevilla, among others. “City Halls understood that they needed to give out licenses to open bars so that there was an area [where people could go] for a glass of wine and atmosphere,” said Pinedo. “That turned the city into something irreversible. If you put 20 bars in a small barrio, you throw out its residents because they cannot endure [the noise].”

Many residents work closely with lawyers like Pinedo to convince city governments to listen to their concerns. Pinedo’s office in Madrid receives about 1,000 noise complaints a year, with close to 30 of them making it to court.  It hasn’t been easy, Pinedo said, partly because bars have strong lobbies. But thanks to the Association’s efforts, Madrid now has four Special Acoustic Protection Zones (ZPAE), where fewer new bar licenses are allowed, existing restaurants must close their outdoor seating earlier, and new zoning plans are implemented on a case-by-case basis. According to José Amador Fernández Viejo, the Deputy Director General of Quality and Environmental Assessment of the City of Madrid, this is helping to keep things quieter. In one ZPAE, the number of days marked by excessive leisure noise dropped by 33 percent, he said.

In addition to these city ordinances, the Madrid City Government and the Lawyers Against Noise Association work with young people on noise-awareness initiatives. Pinedo’s group runs school programs that teach kids about the problems associated with excessive noise exposure. The local government runs a program to help teachers and students understand the impact of high acoustic levels on health and the environment.

Whether or not these measures quiet the habits of a society bent on living loudly outdoors remains to be seen. For now, Madrid continues to be one of the noisiest capitals of Europe.

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