Too many decibels, too few quiet moments

By Barbara Julian and Maleea Acker

Airplanes, leaf blowers, whipper snippers, chainsaws, automobiles and a host of other sources of noise are creating a growing din in our daily lives. The cacophony is creating health risks and, increasingly, quiet refuge is getting hard to find.

Part 1: The noise crisis cometh

Barbara Julian

It’s a beautiful early summer morning. You take the newspaper and a coffee into the garden, but someone next door suddenly starts up a chainsaw. While he cuts down a tree, people start hammering new roof shingles on the house across the road. You escape to a park, but there workers are breaking up the concrete with jackhammers and the people at the next picnic table turn up the volume on their boom box. A visit to the public library finds it reverberating with the clamour of cell phone conversation. Later, you stroll along the Inner Harbour and are assaulted by the roar of float planes and helicopters. Car alarms seem ubiquitous. Back at home, a loudspeaker in Royal Athletic Park blasts the birds out of all the trees of Fernwood.

Is it getting noisy around here? Yes: Noise is increasing across our regional district as it is across the planet as a whole. Once labelled a “nuisance,” noise pollution is now identified by the International Conference on Acoustics and Vibration as the world’s second worst health hazard (after air pollution). Toxic noise produces high blood pressure, increased heart rate, and sleep disturbance causing reduced cognitive performance. 

According to the World Health Organization, “persistent noise stress increases the risk of cardiovascular disorders including hypertension and ischaemic heart disease.” Health Canada reports that “significant, adverse, irreversible effects usually occur gradually in response to excessive exposure to noise [and] even short duration exposure can have serious irreversible effects.” 

By contrast, the levels and rhythms of beneficial sound harmonize soothingly with bodily processes: Think of the sigh of waves on a beach, the rustle of leaves in a breeze, the soft buzz of insects. A picture of organic versus mechanical is emerging here.

Noise does not need to be loud to be “toxic.” We not only hear but also feel sound waves, their frequencies resonating differently in different parts of the body. Both loud noise and sound at low frequency are a personal and public health risk, and people who live near airports apparently get the worst of it. The European Commission considers living near an airport to be a risk factor for coronary heart disease and stroke. It “estimates that 20 percent of Europe’s population are exposed to airport noise levels it considers unhealthy and unacceptable.” 

Locally, the Victoria International Airport is lobbying for expansion, supported by the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, even as residential areas in North Saanich continue to expand. This is a hazard for the future, but currently CRD bylaw officers identify “social” noise, construction noise and barking dogs as the most common sources of complaint. Loudspeaker noise is also an issue: If people miles away can hear the commentary at a sports event or rock concert which they didn’t choose to attend, it is clearly louder than it needs to be for those who did. It is not only the decibels that count, however. The sound is experienced as an invasion of space, choice and privacy. 

Doug Roberts, chief bylaw officer for Saanich, reports that in that municipality the top three noise sources are private parties (“we are a college-university town”), humming fans from outdoor heat pumps, and the clamour of delivery trucks and machinery wherever residential zoning abuts commercial.

Poor urban planning, as in placing residential areas next to industrial ones, exacerbates noise pollution, but population growth itself is the root cause, and not one that will be quickly or easily corrected. That leaves municipal jurisdictions with the option of using bylaws to mitigate symptoms, rather than tackling causes, by limiting noise emanating from parties, household tools, and vehicles being revved up under somebody else’s bedroom window.

Coral Henderson, who has worked for the CRD’s bylaws department for the past ten years, admits “we are busier than we used to be.” The CRD is responsible for handling noise complaints specifically in the Juan de Fuca Electoral District, and social, construction and animal noise create the bulk of them. Barking dogs are a big issue, as “more animals come with the increasing human population.” But on the other hand, says Henderson, “people are getting the message that you can only make so much noise without getting into trouble for disturbing the peace of the neighbourhood.”

People adjust, then, which suggests that stronger measures can be accepted to mitigate the well-documented health effects of sound pollution. Loudspeakers can be turned down, leaf blowers banned, road buffers created (trees and shrubbery being best because they also do duty as air cleansers, shade givers, and bird habitat). It’s all welcomed by those who must live and work in the city but long for the quiet of a cottage in the woods.

The word “quiet” means not only “slight or gentle in sound or motion” but also “free from disturbance or agitation.” It is the second meaning which is the key to measuring the “toxicity” of noise. If it creates a subjective experience of disturbance, then it is harmful. Disturbance is stress, and stress manifests on the cellular and molecular level, just as low-frequency sound waves do. Stress means glands initiate a torrent of hormones including cortisol and adrenaline, which force a desire for “flight or fight” even when neither is possible. The word “noise” is related linguistically to “noxious,” and noise is experienced as injurious, an assault or torment that gets under the skin and into the very biophysics of cellular reactions.

We measure the air pressure of sound waves in decibels (one-tenth of a “bel,” named for Alexander Graham Bell) and the frequency of sound waves in “hertz” (named for German physicist H. R. Hertz). Hearing damage can occur at 120 decibels (dB), and typically noise starts to make people “highly annoyed” at around 55dB. The sound level on the shoulder of a major highway is between 80 and 90dB. In Victoria, areas marked as “Quiet Districts” permit 45-60dB, and tonality, impulsivity and intermittency are also factored into the measurement. Loud districts such as the harbour allow for 70dB, a level considered toxic by the International Conference on Acoustics and Vibrations.

Ogden Point and the Inner Harbour are noise hotspots, due to aircraft, cruise ship traffic and the buses servicing the ships. Transport Canada produces a planning tool for municipalities called the Noise Exposure Forecast (NEF). According to a report produced by the James Bay Neighbourhood Association in 2011, a NEF for Victoria Harbour should have been done 10-30 years ago, before the building of major residential buildings and the certification of Victoria Harbour Airport in 2000. Residents near that airport have complained of noise up to 100 decibels. But in Victoria, according to the JBNA report, “Transport Canada has supported the interests of aircraft operators.” 

James Bay residents also feel abandoned by the City regarding both noise and air pollution concerns. An Ogden Point Master Plan (Part A) lays out technical-commercial expansion plans for the harbour, but the Neighbourhood Association, says President Marg Gardiner, is “not welcome to present to the City’s Governance and Priorities Committee meetings.” The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority isn’t helpful either. It receives about $300,000 in revenues from heliport operations, and, says Gardiner, “as residents, we have a very low priority.”

Noise pollution in general gets low priority in municipal planning. The City of Victoria does not collect complaints in a file that is readily accessible if policy makers want to track trends in emergent noise sources (although Bylaws Manager Mark Hayden confirms anecdotally that Victoria’s main sources of complaint are the harbour “activity area” and the downtown nightlife scene). There are bylaw exemptions for police sirens, garbage collection, church bells, parades, festivals and sports events. But one person’s festival is another person’s nightmare; one person’s business destroys another person’s home life. All the municipalities aim to abate noise “which disturbs or tends to disturb the quiet, peace, rest, enjoyment, comfort or convenience of the neighbourhood,” but this is where conflict arises: How do we measure and define “peace,” “enjoyment” and “comfort”?

Different people have different tolerance levels, but environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan have developed a “Reasonable Person Model” in an attempt to standardize what is considered acceptable. The reasonable person is defined as “cooperative, helpful, and satisfied.” S/he is not given to crime sprees, road rage, and domestic violence—some of the results of overcrowding and an over-cluttered soundscape. 

A region supports reasonableness if it meets people’s basic need to “explore, understand, and act meaningfully in their environment” without distraction and stress. Where conflict arises, as between he who wants to boogie in the street and he who wants to sleep, or she who wants to garden with machines at dawn and she who wants to read, expectations based on the Reasonable Person Model are suggested as the arbiter. Rachel Kaplan calls for opportunities for “restoration,” which means re-balance of mental, physical and social well-being. 

The Kaplans see nature itself as the chief means of psychological restoration. Psychological and ecological restoration go together, and conservation of large urban green spaces is the city planner’s best tool for securing both. Wildlife too suffer from toxic noise, and for the same reasons as we do: Their cellular processes, sleep patterns, stress levels and ability to communicate and raise young are compromised. 

Unlike birds, humans cannot just fly away from noise. It seems that residents unfortunate enough to live next to an industrial, transport or entertainment hub in a city committed to commercial growth have two choices: move or buy ear plugs. The question, as development spreads, is where will they move to? Noise buffers are only an emergency measure; what is needed long-term is establishment of low-density quiet areas for “nature in the city.” 

Stress, sleep deprivation and invasion of privacy combine to threaten basic mind-body integrity and “reasonableness.” This is hazardous not only for the sufferers. It is a community issue; we all rely for safety on the reasonableness of our neighbours. In terms of urban design, we would benefit from a new category of “mixed use zoning” which mixes residential with not commercial, but natural space. (See companion article.)

Are we really facing a noise crisis here in Greater Victoria? It depends on where you live. For south Oak Bay, no; for the Songhees and James Bay, yes. For Esquimalt and Victoria West, faced with increased truck traffic due to proposed sewage treatment facilities, quite likely. 

Overall we are not impacted as severely as people in Britain, where one-third feel that noisy neighbours have made their lives a misery and that “they cannot enjoy their own homes.” But if there is one thing the mind-body health revolution has taught us, it is that pleasure equals health, and dis-pleasure equals dis-ease. As far as displeasing noise is concerned it comes down to the old choice between prevention and cure: We can either plan to preserve quiet now, or wait until the citizenry’s howls of desperation become deafening.

Barbara Julian is a local writer and blogger. Sources for this article are listed at the end of the online version.


Part 2: In search of a quiet moment

Maleea Acker

Each spring, salmonberry flowers bloom in profusion in Thetis Lake Regional Park. Pausing on a walk in mid-April, I heard a tree frog gearing up for its spring song; a winter wren slipped to a lower branch of ocean spray, its watery call piercing the air like an aria. 

Above the forest sounds, however, like a sleepless, rumbling assembly line, traffic was audible from Highway 1, a kilometre away. A semi-trailer truck geared down, a motorcycle stepped on the gas, and a multitude of cars rushed with them. I couldn’t see the scene, but I could tell the quality of their engines and the state of their exhaust systems from the park’s centre.

CRD residents are fortunate to have access to 27,277 hectares of parks, which many view as a balm to the stresses of urban life. But when anthropogenic noise follows us to places we use to relax and recharge, the consequences aren’t insignificant. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that traffic noise in particular “is harming the health of almost every third person in the WHO European Region,” and is responsible for up to 50,000 annual deaths in Europe. The WHO’s research shows that sustained noise of only 55 decibels can trigger these effects. 

Many of Greater Victoria’s outlying parks were planned before West Shore development increased traffic to current levels; with an expected 30 percent population increase there by 2038, these levels—and their attendant noise levels—will continue to grow.

The CRD’s Regional Sustainability Strategy (RSS), set for 2014 completion, is examining public transit improvements, provisions for bike lanes and protection of green space, all of which help lower noise levels and support livability. Traffic noise reduction, however, is merely a side benefit of responsible regional planning, not a goal, as CRD Parks Manager of Visitor Services and Community Development Mike Waters confirmed. “We are not actively monitoring traffic noise and it is not a park management issue,” he said, “but I anticipate that we’ll hear more noise as the region grows.” 

Similarly, municipal bylaws, while they help protect the peaceful enjoyment of both residences and parks through limits on the duration and intensity of noise, do not specifically address highway noise. 

I learned from Sean Wong, biologist with the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI), that the last study on noise from the lower Island Highway was completed in 1993. The focus was primarily mitigation of decibel levels for neighbourhoods and schools—using soil berms and fencing—in anticipation of the late 1990s highway improvement project, which saw widening near Thetis Lake and enlargement of nearby interchanges. Noise levels below 55dBs were deemed unnecessary to mitigate.

Curious about how far Highway 1 traffic noise penetrated, I took decibel readings in Thetis Lake and Francis/King Regional Parks and along the length of Munn Road, which circumscribes the Highlands. Decibels measure the intensity of human-audible sounds. Zero dB is the smallest audible sound. A reading of 40dBs is typical for a house’s interior. Conversation happens around 65dBs, a vacuum cleaner hits 95dBs, and a police siren 115dBs. 

Within Thetis Lake park on a windless day, readings ranged from 75 dBs down to 45 dBs, furthest from the highway. The sound of traffic never completely disappeared, however, no matter where I was. In fact, I had to travel past Francis/King Park, five kilometres north to Woodridge Place, in order to escape its voice. Standing beside Eagles Lake, I felt my stress levels drop. Yet the readings were similar—42 decibels—a three decibel difference that research tells us shouldn’t be discernible by the human ear. 

The restorative effects of a quiet natural environment provide a powerful and well-documented antidote to our busy lives, argues Adam Alter, psychology professor at New York University. Natural areas provide an opportunity to engage in what William James called “involuntary attention,” which requires very little mental effort, but restores our mental functioning. “Directed attention,” its taxing counterpart, enables humans to complete demanding tasks like driving, conversing with strangers and making decisions. Urban environments, however, even when stimulating, are ultimately brain-depleting, writes Alter. We restore equilibrium through doses of involuntary attention, which is best supported in nature, where the mind can take in stimuli without need for judgment or problem-solving. 

UVic Psychology professor Robert Gifford concurs. “Any input,” he says, “strains our cognitive capacity over time; nature allows for the recovery (restoration) of the capacity to deal with forced or required input.” 

What if the intrusion of traffic noise into a park shifts our focus back to directed attention and the tasks awaiting us in the urban world, preventing the reverie and wandering mind that involuntary attention allows?

We know from studies on non-humans that such noise can adversely affect them. The effects of traffic noise on birds and aquatic mammals have been a concern for decades. UVic’s Ocean Networks Canada observatories study the effects of acoustic pollution—noise that ship traffic makes—in Saanich Inlet and Georgia Strait. For marine mammals who depend on communication by sound, ship traffic can be deadly. Birds, similarly, rely on song to successfully mate and defend territory. When noise invades habitat, successful nesting decreases, resulting in a loss of biodiversity. 

Traffic noise is a factor of tire and pavement type, volume of traffic and speed. The higher the volume and speed, the more noise. According to MOTI, in 1951, the daily traffic count for Highway 1 alongside Thetis Lake was 4,540 vehicles. By 2012 this number had risen to 87,950 vehicles. Increases in traffic volume have an exponential effect on what we hear, cautioned Oak Bay-based engineer Clair Wakefield, president of Wakefield Acoustics. “Tire noise goes up with speed,” he said, “and all else being equal, if the speed stays constant then noise levels will go up 3dB every time you double the volume of traffic.” For the traffic near Thetis Lake, this means an increase of 13dB over the last 60 years. Though this may not seem like much, it’s essentially three times as loud.

To try to experience what Thetis Lake park might have been like 50 years ago, I took a walk into the CRD’s Sea to Sea Regional Park Reserve, 3874 hectares of wilderness that provides  a corridor and protected belt in the Sooke Hills. Decibel readings on the Mount Manuel Quimper trail were similar to those in Thetis Lake Park, but the sound came from wind, streams, birdsong, and the occasional falling tree branch. Even from a peak just south of Manuel Quimper, I couldn’t hear traffic or the usual hobbies of rural residents. It was very wild, and an easy peace to get used to. Hiking back down, noise from the first truck at the bottom of the path made me jump. 

Although the new Regional Sustainability Strategy planning process is attempting to bring representatives from all levels of government to the table, it can be particularly hard to address the problem of noise pollution when highways, parks and planning are the responsibilities of different government entities, which can lead to silo-like decision-making. “What happens adjacent to a park happens to a park,” agrees the CRD’s Waters. “If a park ends up being surrounded by major transportation arteries, there’s not much we can do. We still only manage what happens within the park.” 

As our green spaces face greater pressure from a growing region, concerted effort will be needed to ensure that 50 years from now, the Sea to Sea wilderness doesn’t become what Thetis Lake—beautiful but hobbled by the roar of the outside world—is for us today.

Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows on BC’s South Coast and The Reflecting Pool (poetry). She was interviewed about the former in the January 2013 edition of Focus.