”Cities are noisy”

We hear this a lot from noise denialists who try to dismiss or justify excessive, unnecessary, and unhealthy levels of noise — the idea that cities are inherently noisy, and therefore no one who lives in a city should ever complain about noise or try to do anything about it.

According to this rationale, any level of noise for any reason in any part of a city at any time is OK, because ”cities are noisy.” This is often accompanied by the idea that, ”If you don’t like it, you should move someplace else.” (The fact that 270 million U.S. residentsmore than 80% of the population — live in urban areas renders this latter, and thoroughly deflective, idea utterly impractical.)

Yet many of these pro-noise advocates never seem to apply this same supposedly ‘common sense’ view to other aspects of city life. For example, cities generally have much higher levels of air and ground pollution than suburban or rural areas, but no one says they should be allowed to burn their garbage or simply drop it on the sidewalk because “cities are dirty” — and that if other residents don’t like toxic air or garbage-strewn streets, they should move someplace cleaner.

Similarly, cities are well known for having much higher living costs than other areas, yet many of the same people who dismiss excessive sound levels on the basis that “cities are noisy” do not apply that same idea to housing costs — i.e., because everyone knows ”cities are expensive,” therefore those who can’t afford to live there shouldn’t complain about it, they just need to move someplace cheaper.

Quite the opposite: Many noise denialists actively complain about people whose activities make urban housing more expensive, such as luxury real-estate developers, wealthy homebuyers, and speculative investors — and then go even further by demanding that the government adopt policies and spend millions of dollars of public money to keep housing affordable for those of lesser means.

In other words, they say it’s the government’s responsibility to change the nature of cities so that all kinds of people can live there. Yet conveniently — and hypocritically — they simultaneously claim that nothing can or should be done about excessive urban noise, because ”that’s the way cities are.”

The fact that cities are generally noisier than less-populated areas hardly serves as a reason to then insist that they must remain that way forever — especially at the cost of people’s health — or that we must tolerate the actions of people who deliberately make them even noisier, any more than urban pollution serves as a justification for not collecting garbage, or not regulating hazardous waste, or actively defending people who think they’re entitled to deliberately pollute cities even more. The existence of a problem is not a justification for perpetuating it or making it even worse.

Many of the Noise Project’s volunteers have lived in other, much larger U.S. and foreign cities than Providence, with far higher populations (and population densities), including Boston, Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. Yet with the exception of New York — the largest and most densely populated city in the United States — few of them are as consistently loud as Providence. Moreover, all of those cities actively regulate sound levels precisely because they are noisy.

But here in Providence, ardent noise denialists insist that people can make as much noise as they want, whenever and wherever they want, no matter the adverse effects it has on other people’s health, on the basis of a recursive fallacy that “Cities are noisy, so it’s OK to make noise” — which is what makes them noisy, and thus (in these people’s minds) justifies making even more noise.

In fact, Providence and other cities can and should be less polluted, less economically stratified, and less noisy. Those aren’t immutable conditions, they are the result of public policies that can and must be changed. The first step in doing so is to acknowledge that they are choices — and thus we can change them. The second step is to stop justifying or tolerating excessive and unnecessary noise on the basis that “cities are noisy.” Cities are only as noisy as their residents allow them to be.