thoughts on our urban future

Sounds of the City

It has gotten to be the time of year when I have my double glazed bedroom window open pretty much all of the time.  This means that the city sounds are now a constant part of my home life.  Although I live on a London Square, one side of it (which is not far from my house) is a fairly major road and gets a lot of traffic as well as supporting a handful of bus lines.  This means there is noise 24 hours a day.

The thing is, I don’t mind the noise, and in fact, I sort of like it.  Recently someone who stayed at my house commented on the city noise.  They said they could see how I liked it, that it was in some way comforting to hear all the hustle and bustle outside.  I’m not sure what it is, I like the connection that sound gives me to the city.  I like to feel that I am part of it, even when I am in my own space.

Don’t get me wrong, there are obviously noises that bother me and wake me up.  The neighbor having a loud party, the foxes in the square at 2am, the delivery truck to the grocery store at stupid o’clock.  Obviously there are noises that I do not like, and if I did not live in a city, it would be unlikely I would have to deal with those noises (except the foxes perhaps, and my goodness but they do scream).  But there is a sort of comforting white noise of traffic and people that makes me feel safer.  Makes me feel as if I am not alone.  Makes me feel as though I am part of something bigger.

Noise is one of the things that many people cite as a reason against urban living.  Many people feel that they need quiet.  I simply realize I am not one of these people.  I like ambient noise.  I don’t particularly like absolute silence.  To be cliche, I find it far more deafening than background murmurs.  I wonder though- because there is a difference between tolerating noise and actually enjoying it, how is this spectrum actually defined?  For myself, I have come to realize that it is not just something that ‘doesn’t bother me’ but instead, that it is something that I actively enjoy.  I find the noise of the city contributes to my life in some way and I appreciate it.

Listening to it as I write this post, I would liken the traffic on the road to the crashing of waves on a shore, albeit with a somewhat higher degree of variation.  Still, it is something I find calming.  I don’t know- does this make me particularly odd that I really like these sounds?  Do other people just tolerate the background noise that is always with them, or do they also enjoy it?  It’s interesting I suppose because when understanding the issues people raise about urban living, is noise really a problem?  Is it something that you just get used to, or is it something that can actually be beneficial?  Is there an optimal amount of noise or a minimum standard for detrimental noise?

If anyone has answers, please feel free to put them in the comments.  I’m sure this is an area that must have been studied to some degree.  Just something that has been on my mind as the sounds of the city sing me to sleep each night.

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  1. City noises, whether living in Bethnal Green or central Soho, definitely do not not sing me to sleep each night; they wake me, keep me awake and disrupt my life. Illegal mini cab two doors down: does not sing to me. Shouting, drunk groups at 4am: do not sing me to sleep. Honking horns and sirens: do not sing me to sleep. And the glass crushing machine early dawn: ain’t no sleep lullaby!

    Urban noise is a nuisance and I could really do without it. I would sleep better and enjoy city life much more. It is the single biggest complaint I have of urban life. Westminster probably would agree. Peace and quiet for the vast majority of us Londoners, I would argue…

  2. I wonder who the visitor was who commented on city noises…Anyway, white noise-type traffic noises are soothing, I agree. But a lot of traffic noise is abruptly sharper or louder than what I consider the type of noise that fades into the background, and like Scott pointed out, those don’t exactly lull you to sleep or keep you there if you were lucky enough to fall asleep in the first place. That said, cities are not the only noisy places. In the tropical paradise where I live (ha!), I have to deal with really loud wildlife. We have birds that chirp loudly, exclusively in the middle of the night. And we have birds who shriek really loudly just before dawn. There are also guard dogs who bark viciously throughout the night — if they’re barking at violent marauders, at least the marauders are quiet. On top of wildlife, people everywhere, not just in cities, can be rude. There is a religious Muslim within earshot who daily violates the Nairobi noise ordinance by issuing the call to prayer at or just before 5:00 a.m. by using a very loud sound system (I do not mean to make this a religious debate; I am merely stating the facts). I have no idea where this unofficial place of worship is, not that I’d bother calling the Nairobi police. But between the shrieking birds, barking dogs and the calls of the faithful, it’s really hard to sleep even outside the city proper.

  3. I thought I was clear in my post that there are noises that are bothersome and that not all city noises are good, but maybe not.

    What I was trying to convey is how much I like the low-grade white noise hum of living in a city- that I find the constant presence of human life around me to be comforting and soothing.

    I compare this, say, to the absolute quiet of being isolated from other humans and human settlements. Although Samantha’s comments about the intrusive noise of the wild are equally interesting in this regard.

    Ultimately, I believe humans are social creatures who crave the closeness of other humans. To me, white city noise represents this, and I like it. Intrusive, loud, and disruptive noise will always be bothersome, regardless of if you are in the city or not. That’s all!

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