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Some U.S. cities are using cameras to crack down on noise pollution

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A utility poll with three government surveillance cameras is in the foreground. A city office building is just behind it.

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Cities from New York and Washington, D.C., to Knoxville, Tennessee and Albuquerque, New Mexico, are studying a new way to address noise pollution by installing what looks like an army of radio reporters on the streets. They’re commonly referred to as noise cameras. When a loud car passes by — typically one exceeding 85 decibels — these noise cameras snap a photo of the car’s license plate and a ticket is mailed to the driver.

Erica Walker is an epidemiologist at Brown University, where she founded and runs the Community Noise Lab. Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino spoke to her about these noise cameras and Walker’s skepticism of this new surveillance system.

Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Erica Walker: I’m probably the odd man out here, but I don’t necessarily think that noise cameras are the right way to do things. They could work in certain situations, but I like to take a step back. In a lot of my research, we’ve looked at noise complaints and the distribution of noise complaints over the city. And we see that noise complaints can be used to target certain parts of a community that people deem to be undesirable. Having seen that and seeing things like age and race be factors that influence people’s complaints, I just feel like noise cameras can unnecessarily target certain people in the community.

It’s important for us to strike a balance between sound levels that can cause harm, but we also want to appreciate the cultural aspects, the acoustical culture of a community. We don’t want every city or every community to sound the same. So when I think about these kinds of measures to thwart noise pollution, I think about what it does to the heterogeneity of a community. There are some communities that just sound a certain way. Some communities like to sit out on their porches and play music and have parties. These are cultural elements, and they’re important to preserve.

Meghan McCarty Carino: When it comes to noise pollution that is actually harmful, do certain communities bear a higher burden?

Walker: Absolutely. Transportation is a significant contributor to the acoustical environment, the acoustical soundscape — not only cars, but buses and airplanes and subways too. So who usually lives in those communities where there are major transportation networks, where there’s major industrial operations? It’s usually poor people. By virtue of the way we plan our cities, we put poor people in areas that are loudest because they’re closest to the highways, they’re closest to the industrial plants.

McCarty Carino: What do you think can be done to address the danger without impeding some of the positive aspects of a city soundscape that you talked about?

Walker: We need to take a step back and think about how we plan our cities. But we also need to think about the transition from sound to noise. Noise is one of those few environmental exposures where conversation is required. In order for us to name something noise pollution, we need to figure out what the unwanted aspects of the sound are. I think we need to go back to the way we used to do things by getting out into communities and having conversations with people. We’re not going to solve this by putting sensors up everywhere. It’s just a very, very, very superficial mechanism for very deep, historical structural issue with urban planning and what we’ve decided to put in communities next to whom. As a noise researcher, I always say that I’m very much anti-quiet. I think that as a community, when we come to the table with solutions, I think that we should be more anti-quiet and more pro-peace. Peace requires some sort of negotiation, and in those negotiations, that community may agree that a noise camera is the right way to go. I just don’t think that noise cameras should be arbitrarily put in neighborhoods where people complain, because complaints have their own history. Putting noise cameras in places where people can complain could just exacerbate the situation even further.

McCarty Carino: Tell me more about this transition from sound to noise that you mentioned.

Walker: Sound is basically anything that we can process through our auditory system. It could range from thunderstorms to ambulance sirens. Noise is when an individual reaches a threshold where a sound goes from being pleasant to unpleasant. So it’s any types of sounds in our environment that an individual or community deems to be unwanted.

McCarty Carino: And how did you end up in this field studying sound?

Walker: Oh, boy. So I had my own situation. I’m a former artist — I made furniture and I was a bookbinder. I lived in this apartment building that was my home and my studio, so I was basically home 24/7, because my whole space was my workspace. It was quiet until one day I got new neighbors upstairs, and they had a small family with two kids. The kids used to run across their floor, which was my ceiling, almost 24 hours a day. It was so bad that I was literally going to take them to small claims court and get them evicted. In that process of preparing the court case, a lot of questions came up. I was collecting data, including my own saliva samples, and sending them off to a lab to be tested. I bought a sound meter. I just went hardcore. And in that process, I realized that people weren’t really taking the effects of noise seriously. I also realized that a lot of people were suffering from this same thing. So I decided to move out of my apartment and sell off my equipment. Someone told me I should try this field called public health, and the rest is history, I guess.

McCarty Carino: Do you have a different view of sound and noise now that you have studied it so much?

Walker: At the time when I was dealing with my upstairs neighbors, I was coming from a place of wanting to punish the offender. But being in the community and getting many different perspectives, it’s just made me realize the importance of conversation and the importance of talking to people because one person’s sound may be another person’s noise and vice versa. It’s really important for us to parse that out before we decide to do anything drastic. We want to leave everyone better off, so I just try to make sure that I listen. So again, I’m more anti-quiet and pro-peace, less sensing and more listening.

One thing Erica Walker made clear in our conversation is noise pollution poses a pretty significant threat to human health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say acute and chronic loud noise exposure can cause a number of medical issues from hearing loss to sleep deprivation, anxiety, depression and even heart disease.

Of course, as Walked said, cars and other vehicles are not the only contributors to noise pollution.

In 2019, The Atlantic published a story about the amount of noise produced by technology we rely on every day: the giant data centers that house the servers that support cloud storage.

Bianca Bosker wrote that piece for The Atlantic. We had her on the show a few years ago.

In the interview, she told us about a resident of Chandler, Arizona, who went searching through his neighborhood trying to find the source of a distant low-grade whine that kept him up at night. He eventually figured out it was coming from a local data center that runs air conditioning all day and night to keep servers cool. And you can imagine in Arizona they get pretty hot.

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