John Surico is a freelance journalist and researcher who covers transit and open space for a number of outlets, including The New York Times and VICE. He’s currently a MSc candidate in Transport and City Planning at University College London.
In a booming city, the din of new construction and traffic can be intolerable. Enter Hush City, an app to map the sounds of silence.
The corner of Canal and Hudson Street at rush hour may be the loudest place in New York City. That’s when the daily share of its 1.26 million monthly vehicles—1.2 million cars, nearly 13,000 buses, and close to 85,000 trucks, as of March—slug through the Holland Tunnel, spilling out onto tight Manhattan corridors built for traffic half the size. Mix that honking, yelling, clattering, and rumbling with the din of constant construction (there are nine active permits within a three-block vicinity, per the city’s active construction map) and infrastructure upgrades, and voilà, you have one noisy mess.
At this intersection you can often experience the perfectly normal New York thing of not being able to hear the person walking next to you. When I approached on a recent morning, I saw a few businessmen start a conversation, and then pause with visual gestures, choosing to be off of Canal before resuming.
This seemed like a good spot to take a noise survey, which is what I was doing, on Hush City, an open-source app that seeks to map out the quiet (and not-so-quiet) corners of cities worldwide. I wanted to see if I could find one here, of all places. So I walked about 100 feet to Freeman Plaza East, a newly made oasis of green in a sea of metal. The decibel level here, according to my iPhone: 59.2 dbA, about six decibels above the World Health Organization (WHO) standard for daytime noise. But, as New York noise goes, not bad. I took some photos of cars and trucks, all trying to turn northward with the help of a sole crossing guard. I was then asked to describe my reception of the sound on Canal itself—I chose words like “unpleasant” and “anger.” Then I submitted my entry, adding my first-hand report from the park to those from other Hush City users.
The idea behind Hush City is that users can log on to find out where to seek refuge from the blare of urban living, in cities from Louisville, Kentucky, to Tehran, Iran. It’s Yelp, but for serenity. For instance, a user can now search near Canal Street, see that it’s “stressing,” and hear exactly what I heard. In “the city that never sleeps”—even now as I write this, late at night in my apartment, I hear an idling diesel engine from a truck on the streets outside, a car alarm going off, someone coughing downstairs—it can read like a treasure map, with the prize being sweet relief of the city’s sonic assault.
WHO has designated urban noise a serious environmental stressor and public health risk. It’s correlated with insomnia, cognitive and hearing impairments, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, and depression. And, like so many other pollutants, its ill effects tend to be concentrated on low-income residents. WHO has repeatedly called on cities and countries everywhere to make reducing noise a serious priority. But in an urban center like Manhattan, where the conviviality and amenities that we seek out often come with racket attached, that can be a challenge.
Gotham is getting louder. Changing consumer patterns has unleashed an unprecedented number of FedEx and UPS trucks on cities; below 60th Street in Manhattan alone, over 120,000 packages are delivered daily, according to the city. The rise in for-hire vehicles has compounded the city’s ancient scourge of congestion, buttressed by cheap gas and economic growth. That economy is also feeding a skyscraper boom, a condo boom, and an office-space boom, all demanding a concussive onslaught of infrastructure investments. Everywhere you go, it seems, piles are being driven, sidewalks jackhammered, walls demo’ed. As the New York Times reports, nearly 40 percent of residential real estate listings in the city are less than 525 feet from new construction. Peace and quiet, it seems, will be in increasingly short supply.
I first met Dr. Antonella Radicchi, the creator of the app and head of the Hush City Mobile Lab at the Technical University of Berlin, by chance. She had reached out after I tweeted about the de Blasio administration’s “People Priority Zone” pilot program for downtown Manhattan, which aims to pedestrianize a large swath of the Financial District, where I often work. She was in New York for research, mapping out the quiet areas of Manhattan and beyond, and was curious to see if the mayor’s plan had any noise implications. So we took to the streets.
Radicchi, an Italian-born architect and self-described “soundscape urbanist” trained in Florence, proved to be an enthusiastic explorer of downtown Manhattan, taking videos and notes of anything noisy that came up. As we sidled down one of the area’s Dutch-era roads, making room for cars and delivery trucks along squeezed sidewalks, Radicchi asked me what I would define as “noise.” Traffic was my first choice, I said, as well as any sort of machinery—from construction, maintenance, or otherwise. People, lesser so: I work at home across the street from an elementary school amidst the cheerful white noise of playing children screaming at lunchtime. It’s the car alarm going off outside that ultimately unnerves me.
“I would recommend using the terms ‘sound’ and ‘acoustic environment,’ and use the term ‘noise’ when a negative connotation is implied in the discourse,” she told me. There is a difference, she continued, between the human sounds of urban living—the happy hum of conversation in outdoor cafes, the ping of an aluminum bat from a softball game in the park, the throb of distant music from a car radio—and the mechanical din of development, which hops up the decibel scale quick. She referenced a distinction initially made by R. Murray Schafer, who wrote the seminal 1977 book, The Soundscape.
“The first derive from nature: like water, animal and human sounds,” she explained, “whereas the latter”—which Schafer called the “Post-Industrial Soundscape”—“are a byproduct of man, and were introduced in parallel with technical development starting from the 19th century.”
I asked Radicchi what she experienced during her research visit to New York, which, I imagine, is a lot louder than Berlin. Many of her friends joked, she said, that living in Greenwich Village must keep her up at night with its revelry—the shouts of inebriated college students at night, partygoers on 6th Avenue, tourists. But in fact, she didn’t mind them at all; she had no problem falling asleep, or working, with street life on in the background. Instead, she was bothered by a familiar culprit: traffic. The Ubers. The delivery trucks. The private cars. The tour buses. The helicopters. Everything.
Although she was surprised by the number of quiet areas she found here—mostly in pocket parks, and POPS, or privately-owned public spaces, she said—this growing critical mass of traffic can infiltrate our small city sanctuaries. I experienced this myself using the Hush City app: After my noisy sojourn to Canal and Hudson, I was aching for solitude, and took a walk to a point on the map described as “relaxing.” That was James J. Walker Park, just a few blocks away, where I found the ideals of Schafer’s natural sounds: birds chirping, kids running around the playground. The only intrusion? A parade of honking cars, stuck behind a street sweeper on the adjoining street.
Back in the Financial District, Radicchi and I stopped in front of the thunderous Wall Street heliport, the future home of Uber Copter. The ceaseless roar of chopper blades joined the horns from the ferry terminal to create a cacophony that is bound to intensify in the coming months, if helicopter traffic grows. She remarked that noise seems to be an afterthought in New York City planning, even though the city is home to an updated Noise Code, landmark studies on noise’s effect on children by Dr. Arline Bronzaft, and specific “quiet zones” in its parks. In the recent debate over congestion pricing, nearly all the discussion focused on reducing traffic and funding public transit—few mentioned the soothing benefits it could bring to the city’s soundscape.
“I was surprised that New York City’s Green Deal does not explicitly mention environmental noise in its action programs and plans,” Radicchi said. “Despite noise being the second most harmful stressor after air pollution affecting human health, quality of life, biodiversity and the environment.”
Things are little different in Europe. In 2002, the EU’s Environmental Noise Directive obliged cities with over 100,000 inhabitants to create and update noise maps, noise action plans, and strategies to protect quiet areas every five years. But thus far, she argued, there has been no proper method for implementation. “How to identify and eventually protect quiet areas is still an open issue at the EU policy level,” Radicchi said. She hopes that Hush City can be a way to fill that knowledge gap.
But New York already has several tools at its disposal. The “People Priority Zones,” along with other Vision Zero interventions to increase traffic safety, is capable of transforming high-traffic—and high-noise—areas into places where talking-and-walking pedestrians could thrive. From a design perspective, the city’s Parks Without Borders initiative, which aims to physically open park space up to more people, could also bring a measure of noise relief. And congestion pricing, set to debut after December 2020, will help “thin out streets that have become strangled by traffic,” Radicchi said.
New York City, and New Yorkers, are likely to always remain loud, and that’s as it should be: The human roar of the metropolis is why so many of us gravitate to it. Great urban spaces buzz with sound, from Times Square to the Piazza del Campo in Siena. But they don’t have to be so noisy. Expanding equitable access to natural urban sounds would bring all kinds of public health benefits, and that would raise a greater awareness of their importance in our daily urban lives, Radicchi said. It also lends itself to preserving their vitality.
Walking from James J. Walker Park, I made my way to a point that the app described as “lively,” and it couldn’t have picked a better spot: the Stonewall National Monument in Christopher Park, in front of the Stonewall Inn. The sun shone on the white statues, two men and two women, that commemorate this milestone in the LGBTQ rights movement. Tour groups filed in and out of the small space, learning about what happened here 50 years ago, and everything after. Someone set up a camera, another fed birds with a muffin.
It wasn’t exactly quiet, but it was quiet enough; people gathered to take part in the city, and just be—jackhammers be damned.