Dot flunks noise impact test – resoundingly

An illustration from the Noise and the City report charts the types of noise complaints by neighborhood.

After taking more than 400 site-specific sound measurements and evaluating 1,050 sound surveys from Boston residents, Erica Walker is very familiar with the city’s everyday honks, shouts, melodies, and murmurs. But the graduate student, who has been listening to Boston’s soundscape under the auspices of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says the perception of noise may be just as notable as any measurable decibel level.

Walker first spoke with the Reporter about her mission in December 2015, a time when she was bicycling around the city, her sound monitor and boom in her backpack, setting up posts along quiet streets, bustling corners, and roaring highways.

Ten months later, the 2016 Greater Boston Noise Report, with its neighborhood-specific grading of the impact of noise levels across the city, is live online. Interested parties, in browsing through sound heat maps, neighborhood-specific reports, sound profiles of everyday citizens, will find that they are not alone in resenting the noise around and above them.

In the rankings, Mattapan/Hyde Park took top prize for consistently quiet neighborhoods, receiving an overall “A-plus” score of 94.93. Right next door, though, Dorchester earned a resounding “F” with a dismal score of 45.3.

Although graced with a diverse population and a number of the city’s cultural and natural gems, the report notes, “Dorchester is also inundated with major roads (Blue Hill Avenue, Columbia Road, Dorchester Avenue and Interstate 93), rail/subway (MBTA Red Line) lines, bus lines, and aircraft traffic from Logan International Airport. This conglomeration of transportation networks contributes to high neighborhood ambient noise levels.  Dorchester has the highest volume of noise complaints (and is in the top 3 for neighborhoods with the highest per capita noise complaints) in the city.”

“We can do better with measuring sound and noise in our communities,” Walker said after the report was launched on Monday, “and it starts with being open, with sharing with residents what sound levels are, and also asking residents what’s bothering them. I just feel there needs to be a conversation.”

Walker and her project partners, Julio César Román and Marcos Luna, who collected and assessed the report’s data – seen as a gauge of individual perceptions of noise levels and their impact – found that the most frustrating factors of community noise are: “It is not wanted, it can’t be controlled, it is loud, and it is inescapable. What we can glean from this is that many people feel imprisoned by noise.”

Factoring in features like average and peak day and night-time sound levels, survey-based sound perception, noise complaints, demographics, and transportation attributes, Walker calculated numerical grades for neighborhoods.

In cases where not enough residents participated, neighborhoods were combined, the report states, noting that “ideally, we would love to represent each neighborhood, independently, as each neighborhood has its own distinct character.”

Walker acknowledges that because of her sampling limitations, she cannot yet create street-by-street, village-by-village sound profiles. So a neighborhood’s ranking can be dragged down if there are enough examples of constantly glaring noise.

“That was really hard, because you kind of had to penalize everyone for the sins of a few,” she said. “There are really, really quiet parts and really, really loud parts.”

One of the sound heat maps registers the difference between the standard decibel measurement and the un-weighted decibel level, which accounts for low, not necessarily audible sounds that can nonetheless be felt, like the lowest-pitched, marrow-deep rumblings of a jet plane overhead. Walker’s team believes the latter is the truer measurement of noise in an area.

Walker, who is finishing up her dissertation, is already preparing for a two-year sound monitoring campaign to capture “the finer grains” of the city’s soundscape. The data could be useful from a public health perspective, she says, and increased participation will help make a stronger case for residents who want city officials to note the extent of similar distresses.

For many, constant exposure to city noise can prompt residents’ insistence that objectively cacophonous surroundings are par for the course. Walker said some residents would tell her “it’s not that loud here” while they are standing right across the street from a deafening construction site. “I just found it interesting how their take on their neighborhood was so different from what I was recording in some cases,” she said. “Perception was just really important. It doesn’t matter what’s going on; it’s what’s going on in people’s heads.”

Similarly, even low-level noise can seem to be a destabilizing force on a person’s life. Footsteps overhead stave off sleep, passing cars with booming bass spark frustration at unpredictable times.

Walker says she has been struck by the number of respondents who said noise was preventing them from relaxing in their own homes, which could have a ripple effect on their psychological well being.

“I’m not saying cities will be 100-percent quiet, but be respectful of your own sound footprint,” Walker said. “Be aware of how your sound level is impacting other people.”

The full report and community survey can be viewed at boston.noiseandthecity.org

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