Blog Post

The sound of cities: noise pollution and why it matters

London is alive with the sounds of humanity. The rumble of the tube. The piercing ring of a siren. The drilling. The shouting. The honking. These are modern sounds created by a 21st century society, but noise pollution isn’t a modern trend.

According to Peter Ackroyd, a novelist and poet, 18th century London “rang with the hammers of artisans and the cries of tradesmen”, producing more noise than anywhere else in the country. Industrialised London was the noisiest city in the whole world, according to Walter Besant. Hogarth translated the maddening sounds of London onto canvas in his 1741 painting, which depicted an enraged musician despairing at the cacophony of sounds around him.

Although urban noise isn’t new, it hasn’t ever really been taken seriously as a public health issue that policy can help resolve. Have we underestimated the harm that noise has on our neighbourhoods, our health and our wellbeing?

William Hogarth, The Enraged Musician, 1741, Tate (T01800), digital image © Tate released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

Sound and health

There is increasing evidence that long-term exposure to noise pollution has negative effects on health. Cases of anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes have been shown to increase when noise levels do. According to the World Health Organisation, 1.6 million healthy life years are lost every year because of environmental noise, mainly due to the cortisol that it makes us release.

Poorer people are more effected by noise pollution

Health problems caused by noise pollution are especially pronounced in low income areas, and for some ethnic groups. In particular, much like the hazardous air pollution caused by London’s roads, the noise pollution generated by vehicular traffic is highest in disadvantaged areas. Imagine a house on a quiet, tree-lined street in South London, set back from the pavement with a large front garden. Now imagine a flat on Old Kent Road, with a bus stop outside and no green infrastructure to deaden the sounds of vehicular traffic.

There are some rules to govern noise, but many sounds can’t be controlled

Sounds in cities are created with little thought of how they interact with each other, and as a result the soundscape is chaotic. The workman digging up the road, the dull hum of aeroplanes overhead, your colleagues conversing on the other side of the room. When it all becomes too much, we reach for our headphones.

There are some rules to control the volume of noise in the capital, but London doesn’t have a city-wide strategy. Some boroughs have noise complaint procedures (‘noise nuisance forms’) – whilst others are self-policing. Pubs and venues must keep excessive noise down or risk losing their licences. Construction work is restricted between 8am and 6pm. Drivers are legally prohibited from sounding their horn between 11:30pm and 7am. Libraries have quiet areas and some of London’s museums and galleries are awash with unofficial silence.

But despite efforts to regulate noise, conflict and pollution persists.

Take the night-time economy, for example. Permitted development rights have accelerated the pace of residential buildout in formerly industrial areas. Once playgrounds for London’s underground creatives, well-established and culture-creating venues now adjoin homes, making noise complaints more likely. What is more, the night tube has led to an increase in volume within areas previously less accessible to revellers, generating a wave of resident-led opposition across the capital.

What can we do?

The good news is that curbing environmental noise is moving up the Mayoral agenda, and efforts to improve air quality may incentivise the take up of quieter, electric vehicles. Both the Mayor’s Transport Strategy and the draft new London Plan focus on noise pollution, tasking city planners with “designing out exposure” to noise as through acoustic design and sound-proofing. The Agent of Change principle within the Plan places the onus on developers to mitigate noise conflict, designing new developments in a more sensitive way to protect their occupiers from external sounds and reduce the risk of conflict.

But a focus on new development and building only goes so far to solve the issue. Policies and the media are giving increased (and much needed) attention to air pollution. It’s time that we placed the same emphasis on noise pollution, and look to understand the impact it has on our city, our wellbeing and our health.


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Erica Belcher is a Researcher at Centre for London. Follow her on Twitter.