Noisy neighbourhoods and the quiet we crave

Insufferable sounds signal deep-seated problems in environment

Noise ruins my life.

All of the windows in my apartment face the back of a shopping complex. Sometimes there’s yelling as someone careens out the back exit with their shoplifting spoils. Adding to this hellish symphony is a loudspeaker that the complex’s 24-hour security uses to yell at dumpster divers.

The area is cacophonous at night after a snowstorm when the plows come through to clear a path for semis on their morning deliveries, and then there’s a racket every morning when semi-trucks haul in more random merchandise destined to become garbage.

And then there’s my neighbours.

For two years, one of my neighbours had a finnicky baby, and she would walk him up and down the hallway as he screamed. I share a bedroom wall with another suite where, until recently, three to five people seemed to always congregate to shout at each other and set off alarms at five in the morning. Recently a new group moved into the other neighbouring suite. These neighbours are keen on playing wub-wubz-inducing rave music at two o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon. Occasionally, one person down the hall blasts Rihanna.

I’ve turned to sound studies to make sense of noise through different seasons in my life. Theorist R. Murray Schafer — one of the pioneers of the field — once wrote, “Noise pollution results when a man does not listen carefully. Noises are the sounds we have learned to ignore.” In other words, Schafer wants readers to think about their soundscapes and all the sounds that comprise them rather than lumping sounds into a general category.

That may be a tantalizing hook for a reader versed in literary studies who has access to quiet spaces and wants a new pathway into reading Middlemarch. For me, it reads twerpishly pedantic. Noise seems definitionally to be sound that is un-ignorable or difficult to ignore. No amount of mindful contemplation will make the loudspeaker aimed at a dumpster outside my window any less annoying when I’m jolted awake by it at two in the morning.

If I approach Schafer’s writing more charitably, I can see a productive line of questioning buried in the practice of thinking carefully about sound, even for people who don’t care to write long and indulgent monographs about bird calls. Remember all the noises I described hearing just from my apartment. Isn’t my complex’s exposure to them indicative of something?

Our soundscapes affect our quality of life, and my building has the soundproofing of a pile of foodstuff-covered toothpicks.

The Narwhal ran an article earlier this year about the combination of environmental pollutants — both chemical and sonic — that impact residents of Point Douglas. Residents of the community describe being worn out from not only air pollution, but also by noise from nearby industrial sites and railroads. Although residents can appreciate sounds like crickets and a breeze when the noise quiets down, near-constant clamour does not lend to appreciating those moments.

Ceaseless sound seems to specifically affect low-income neighbourhoods, and silence seems to be something money can buy. This isn’t a problem that’s restricted to Winnipeg. A 2018 study of noise pollution in London found a connection between reduced noise from transport — like roads or railroads — and higher income.

Generally, neighbourhoods that are exposed to more noise tend to be marginalized communities. One 2017 study examining noise exposure in the United States found that neighbourhoods with higher proportions of racialized and low socioeconomic status residents had higher rates of outdoor noise exposure, not that this was anything new at the time.

The study’s authors noted that urban noise surveys from as far back as the ’70s indicated higher socioeconomic status correlated with living in a quieter neighbourhoods, meaning fewer vehicle-related noises and even less of other people’s voices.

While Winnipeg’s bylaws set restrictions on when individual people are allowed to make certain levels of noise, there are no rules about what developers and landlords ought to do to mute sounds between units or between a unit and the outside world.

Manitoba law requires landlords to investigate when tenants complain about their neighbours causing disturbances, but there is no obligation under provincial law for landlords or developers to proactively, rather than reactively, reduce sound.

Why should property owners and lawmakers think about noise, though? A now-ten-year-old study published in the Lancet found that noise hurts health. Not only is persistent noise annoying, it can cause manifest cardiovascular diseases, lower cognition in children and cause sleep disturbances.

Soundproofing often goes hand in hand with other benefits. Units’ doors are thin in my complex, and there are wide gaps between the floor and the doors. They’re so wide that a draft wafts through them in the winter time, which means the heat I’m paying Manitoba Hydro for is probably being lost.

There is no soundproofing between units in my apartment complex, and that has allowed me to hear that some of my neighbours do not have the privacy that I do. I get an entire bedroom to myself, but my neighbours have no quiet place for their early morning debates or colicky babies.

Clearly, quiet is a privilege only some people can pay for. Lacking reprieve from your annoying neighbours, the sound of industry outside your bedroom window, or anything else Schafer urges us not to learn to ignore is a matter of social justice. My neighbours should be allowed to make noise, I should be allowed peace and quiet, and we should all have the power to shape our soundscapes.