Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Cities Aren’t Quiet Places

I made my first trip into Manhattan in 2008.  It was an overnight stop in the middle of a once-over-lightly tour of east coast metropolises, traveling from Boston to New York to Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. and then back north again.

I was traveling alone, by train and with one small bag, so my lodging needs were simple.  For my night in Manhattan, I found a barebones hotel, only a block from my arrival point of Penn Station.  The hotel lacked frills, but seemed safe enough and was light on my wallet.  (I believe I was the only native English speaker among the guests, with Europeans being more tolerant of luxury-free accommodations.)

My room was 6-feet-by-8-feet, with the bed running in the short direction, making sleep challenging for my 6-foot-4-inch frame.  But the bigger threat to my slumber was the location of the window on the second floor, only feet from the continual pedestrian chatter, exhaust noise, and car horns of 8th Avenue.

The room had a window-mounted air conditioner that could, in theory, have allowed me to close the windows on the sultry New York evening, muffling the street noise.  But the air conditioner sounded like a badly-tuned ’58 Oldsmobile, so I soon decided that the light nighttime breeze and the street din was preferable.

It wasn’t the best sleep of my life, but it wasn’t bad.  There was something mildly exhilarating, but also comforting, in the shouts of 3am flower deliveries and in the clamor of a traffic jam at daybreak.

That night came to mind during a pair of recent public hearings.  A freeway- and railroad-adjacent mixed-use project within a downtown specific plan was under consideration.  Several members of the hearing bodies questioned whether the noise would be acceptable for residents.

To me, the question verged on nonsensical.  Cities aren’t quiet places.  If we’re going to forbid housing in noisy locations, we might as well bury urbanism.

I’m not arguing that we should ignore noise, but we need to have a common sense approach to it.

My list of noise regulatory standards would include the following:

·         ·         It’s reasonable to ban housing where noise would truly be excessive, such as adjoining a steel plant.  If the noise is truly beyond tolerance, there’s a risk that housing would decline in value, becoming a drag on the cities by requiring services inconsistent with the tax base.
·         It’s reasonable to look into the future for possible noise increases.  The aggregate plant next door may be idle today, but it might go back into operation next year.  It’s only fair that everyone understand the possibilities.
·         Home buyers should be alerted to noise expectations.  At the same time, they should be notified that they’re not allowed to complain at a later date about noise of which they were informed.  Many cities already have standards such as these.  This standard would be parallel to the airport or “right to farm” rules in many places.
·         Builders should be carefully monitored to ensure compliance with noise-related building standards.  Construction techniques are available to reduce interior noise, but they’re useless if not correctly installed.  Perhaps an incremental building permit fee should be charged for noisier settings, ensuring that cities have inspection funds adequate to inspect the noise measures.

Outside of these measures, I’m perfectly fine with a caveat emptor approach to noise.  If someone chooses to live in an urban setting with more noise, they should have that option.  And I may end up as their neighbor.  It’d probably be quieter than an open second-story window above 8th Avenue in Manhattan.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. One of the problems I had while trying to figure out which trade-offs to make in my workshop was a lack of good data on the actual noise reduction capabilities of various wall assemblies. Was it worth it for me to pay the extra for "QuietRock"? What impact would hanging the sheetrock directly on isolated studs (so that I could hang shelves off those studs) vs hanging it off Z-bracket? Paying the extra for dense cellulose vs fiberglass inside the wall cavities?

    And when we talk about higher density living with people who haven't lived in relatively upscale high rises, the first thing they talk about is that inevitable first apartment complex, the thumping headboard from the adjacent apartment, the footsteps from upstairs, and so forth.

    I've also heard several people suggest a meme the Theatre Square development was done by a developer used to doing commercial projects, and thus the apartment-to-apartment noise transmission is excessive.

    So I think a large part of the push towards urbanism, towards denser development, is building a narrative on to which we can hang data about building relatively sound-isolating residential buildings. Ways to say that "no, really, that cheap apartment is not what we're talking about", and ways to verify that, indeed, this development isn't just your first cheap apartment with a fresh coat of paint.

    1. Dan, thanks for the comment. I agree that having good examples of quiet urban residential units would be helpful.

      Regarding noise characteristics, my knowledge is limited to occasionally hanging out with architects, so is less than comprehensive, but I understand that most noise leakage occurs at interfaces, such as where walls transitions to windows or doors. Good construction requires attention to those locations. If I understood properly, the Petaluma Planning Commission Chair, who was a developer, made exactly that comment during the dispute between the Celsius 44 residents and the Cow Girl Creamery.

  2. This idea

    "· Home buyers should be alerted to noise expectations. At the same time, they should be notified that they’re not allowed to complain at a later date about noise of which they were informed. Many cities already have standards such as these. This standard would be parallel to the airport or “right to farm” rules in many places."

    is valid in a broader context as well. As a transportation planner, one of the NIMBY complaints I hear most often when a rail easement reactivation plan is being entertained is "think of the noise!" I'd suggest that any property sold next to rail easements needs to have this fact noted in its deed, along with the caveats that (a) you cannot complain about noise, and (b) even if the easement is disused today it may be reactivated at any time in the future.

    1. Yes! Although two things:

      1. I was shocked that at our signing that we found some really egregious issues with paperwork (historical copies of the same document, over and over), and the title company rep said "wow, you're the first people to have noticed". So it's a good bet that when this disclosure ends up in court, we're back to a jury saying "nobody ever reads that stuff..."

      2. Another good idea would be to get the FRA "blow a whistle at every culvert" rules changed, and to get train controls modernized. If modern commercial trucking fleets all have deployed Lane Deviation Warning systems, there's no reason locomotives shouldn't have IR "looks like a railroad track" systems, and automated signalling.

    2. Steve and Dan, I agree completely. Thanks for participating in the conversation.