“It is hereby declared to be the policy of the city to prohibit unnecessary, excessive, and offensive noise
from all sources subject to its police power, for the sole purpose of securing and promoting the public
health, comfort, safety, and welfare of the citizenry.”
— Providence municipal code (Chapter 16, Article III)
A Public and Active Noise Policy
Any modern municipality of Providence’s size and stature should have a comprehensive, active, and publicly posted noise policy — not an effectively meaningless policy declaration like the one above, which is routinely ignored by both the mayor and the City Council itself, or aspirational statements about addressing the issue, or internal policies (or partial ones) known only to those at City Hall.
An active noise policy would:
- Declare excessive noise a significant public health threat like unaffordable housing, lead waterpipes, and other issues the city is actively addressing for the well-being of its residents
- Delineate the specific noise-reduction measures the city government is either already implementing or planning to address the most prevalent vehicular, residential, and commercial noise sources
- Actively measure the effectiveness of its noise-reduction efforts, and report the results to the public on a regular basis
Publicly announcing an operational policy would indicate that the city government is serious about reducing noise, is actively engaged in doing so, and expects to be held accountable by the public on the results of its efforts. Concomitant with a declaration would be the public designation of a civilian city official to implement it.1 Thus far, the Smiley administration hasn’t done any of those things.
In addition to the city government, an effective noise-reduction policy should involve the Rhode Island Departments of Health (RIDOH) and Environmental Management (DEM) — neither of which currently does anything to measure or otherwise address noise — along with neighborhood associations, non-profit organizations, the Providence Public School District, and city residents.
The basic components of a comprehensive municipal noise policy should include:
Measure Noise in the City
Just as cities around the world take steps to measure the extent of air pollution and other health and environmental issues, Providence should measure sound levels throughout the city on an ongoing basis — especially in residential neighborhoods, which under city ordinances have lower noise limits — to see how loud they actually are at different times of day, on different days, and in various times of year, and by extension how effective any official noise-reduction efforts really are.
Those sound-level readings — along with data on noise complaints to both PVD311 and police — should be made public (i.e., not require journalists and others to file APRA requests for it) so residents and visitors can better understand personal experience and degree of exposure to potentially unhealthy noise levels in the broader context of the city-wide soundscape. As with other forms of air pollution, people have a right to know about the environment they live, work, and socialize in.
It’s worth noting that, in his response to the Noise Project’s survey of candidates for Providence mayor in 2022, then-candidate Brett Smiley said:
“As part of a review of the noise level in our city and improved enforcement, noise should be measured on an ongoing basis in order to produce consistent data. Like any other issue we would study, we need the technology and the policies in place to properly measure this issue in order to make the best decision for our community.”
The survey also asked if, as mayor, his administration would issue annual reports on noise levels in Providence and the specific polices and actions the city government is taking to address them. Candidate Smiley responded that, “[R]egular reporting and data collection are important to the decision-making process.” As of early 2024, however, the city is neither measuring noise nor reporting on its specific polices and actions to reduce it, other than occasional statements to the media.
Conduct an Ongoing Public-Education Campaign
Providence conducts outreach campaigns to encourage participation in and compliance with various public policies such garbage collection, recycling, and winter snow shoveling. A city-wide initiative to reduce excessive noise should include a campaign to educate the public on the adverse effects of noise on human health, the municipal and state laws that regulate it, and official efforts to reduce sources of noise pollution, especially in residential areas. The health and social effects of noise should also be part of the Providence public schools’ environmental and health curriculums.
Deter Unnecessary Noise by Consistently Enforcing Existing Laws
Generating excessive noise is a non-violent infraction that rarely poses an imminent danger to the community — but it effects the long-term health of everyone exposed to it (even if they don’t know or acknowledge it), and should be proactively addressed on a broad social level, rather than a reactive, incident-by-incident basis.
No areas of the city should suffer the benign neglect of simply being written off as “loud places to live” or places where people supposedly “like noise.” All Providence government officials and employees — including police officers, members of the Board of Licenses, other executive-branch staff, and members of City Council — should be familiar with the city’s noise ordinances and noise-related policies, starting with the declaration at the top of this page.
Consistent enforcement of noise-related municipal ordinances and Rhode Island vehicle laws would have an immediate impact on the health and well-being of residents and visitors, by deterring deliberate violations of existing noise-control measures and thus reducing overall sound levels. Basic enforcement should include telling residents who complain about noise violations the specific steps that were taken to address their complaint, rather than the current opaque process.
Target noise recidivism / impunity
One seemingly obvious measure would be to identify and address the relatively small number of “repeat offenders” who currently generate a disproportionate share of unhealthy and unnecessary noise in Providence with relative impunity.
The city‘s existing Nuisance Task Force is specifically designed for such an effort — its official definition of a nuisance is “any property that, by virtue of condition, activity, or situation, poses a threat to the health, safety, or welfare of the community or that otherwise interferes with the quiet use and enjoyment of nearby properties” — yet seems under-utilized for that purpose.
The Nuisance Task Force includes representatives from the City Solicitor’s Office, the Police Department, the Fire Department, Department of Inspection and Standards and the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General.
Modernize Noise Reduction
In addition to developing, implementing, and promoting an active, comprehensive, and effective public policy to reduce unhealthy noise levels as described above, there are several measures the city should take to move its noise-reduction efforts beyond the traditional strategies that clearly do not work or address current realities.
Learn from Best Practices
Urban noise is a global issue, and cities around the world have developed innovative measures to address a wide range of noise pollution sources. Providence should study the most effective means being employed in other U.S. and international cities, learn from their experiences and seek their advice, and adapt the best of those practices to our specific needs.
Re-Imagine Noise Enforcement
In the context of the national discussion around re-imagining law enforcement methods and philosophy, Providence could establish a small group of unarmed, civilian “noise reduction officers” (NROs) whose role would be to observe and cite noise violations, in the same way that traffic-control officers issue tickets to illegally parked cars in many U.S. and international cities.
NROs would be based in neighborhoods, be assisted by audio-video technology such as noise meters, and be able to call for police assistance if and when needed. As with parking tickets, anyone who received a noise citation would be able to challenge it in a due-process administrative hearing. NROs would help to lower the police profile in communities, and their single-issue focus could allow more opportunities for non-judicial resolution of noise issues.
Utilize Existing Technology
Much as technology has helped address speeding and red-light running, technical means to deter mobile noise sources such as vehicles with modified mufflers or over-amplified stereos has emerged in recent years. Providence and other Rhode Island and U.S. cities already uses speed cameras to deter dangerous driving near schools, and should consider the adoption of similar “noise cameras” in areas prone to excessive noise from vehicles.
These stationary devices are triggered when passing vehicles generate noise above a certain decibel threshold, and take a picture of the offending vehicle’s license plate. The owner or driver is then issued a ticket for non-compliance with noise statutes. As with current photo tickets, these would be reviewed by a sworn police officer and be subject to challenge in a due-process administrative hearing.
Enforce / Enact Laws on Noise-Producing Equipment
The use of noise-amplifying “after market” mufflers (e.g., glass pack and straight-pipe exhausts, exhaust tips, etc) is already a violation of both Providence municipal code (Sec. 16-99) and Rhode Island state law, yet they’re openly sold and professionally installed in the city and state — despite the fact that they can’t legally be used here. (If you know of other such illegal devices, please tell us.)
Prohibiting modified muffler sales — and actually enforcing such a ban — obviously won’t prevent offenders from buying them elsewhere, but it would make the costs and effort of doing so greater, and thus inhibit their use to some degree. Combined with increased enforcement of local and state muffler laws,2 a sales ban would help curtail one of the most prevalent and indefensible sources of excessive and unnecessary noise that Providence residents are exposed to on a recurrent basis.
Similarly, cities and other communities across the U.S. have banned the use of gas-fueled leafblowers and other uses of extremely loud, polluting, and unhealthy two-stroke engines such as lawnmowers and other landscaping equipment, scooters, mini-bikes / go-karts, as a way of reducing both noise and air pollution.3
Traditional fossil-fueled landscaping equipment and mobility platforms are steadily being eclipsed by electric versions, and a declining market for the former would hasten the transition to the latter. Providence should enact such a ban in phases, along with an incentive program to encourage equipment operators to transition from polluting tools to cleaner and quieter electric models.
1 Conversely, the continued lack of such a policy indicates that, much like his predecessors, the mayor considers noise to be at worst a public and political inconvenience akin to parking or litter control, not a threat to the health and well-being of both residents and visitors. This half-hearted and inconsistent approach is unlikely to significantly reduce the prevalence of excessive noise over the long term — to say nothing of changing the dysfunctional culture that enables and even encourages it — and, like the noise policy statement at the top of the page, seems more performative than serious.
2 Given that those who violate noise laws effectively “announce” their non-compliance, it should not be difficult to find them — as demonstrated by the city’s crackdown on illegal fireworks in the Spring / Summer of 2020 and ATVs since then.
3 Two-stroke engines also represent a serious threat to the long-term hearing and respiratory health of their operators, unless professional-grade earplugs are worn properly and consistently during their use, which is relatively rare.