The sonic ghetto

Sonic ghettos

Two fifths of the respondents to the 2008 National Noise Survey indicated that their quality of life suffered as a consequence of noise in their everyday lives. The density and concentration of urban life certainly produces variable and increasing stressors and sensitivities – but is this about poor neighbours or bad building regulations? How many fewer cases of noise stress, anti-social behaviour, noisy parties and other wicked urban problems might be faced-down by better sound insulation? Could this agenda be made to mesh with zero-carbon emission ambitions for buildings? A nice idea, surely. Noise needn’t be a source of community stress or a necessary by-product of the changing urban fabric. Noise is commonly held to be responsible for many psycho-social tensions, civil disputes and the ambient unease of much urban life. Noise is a subjective defined state of affairs – passing trains can be noisy but it is quite easy to become used to (soothed even) them over time. This designation is also shaped by social and spatial factors – the territories of everyday routines, journeys to work and, crucially, homes. For noise to penetrate the home is an insidious and deeply destabilising experience. I get anxious, angry and upset very quickly if I hear music near my home after a protracted experience of loud music from thoughtless students from a flat directly opposite mine in Glasgow years ago. Much such noise is people just doing what they do, not realising that their personal freedoms may generate inwardly hating, stressed and sleepless lives in those around them – some of it, on the other hand, is due to arrogance, displays of aggression and sonic/territorial claims to space through the use of sound-power. Just as good fences are needed to have good neighbours it is quite clear that solid walls and floors may be just as important.

Do not disturb, Rome

Noise isn’t an inevitable or inescapable aspect of urban life, to state this is to deny the possibility of making better buildings or better neighbours. This might on first glance be seen as the analytical realm of the architect, planner, regulator or the environmental scientist. However, as Jacques Attali pointed out in his book Noise, there is a distinctive ‘politics’ of noise and this is most clearly understood in terms of who experiences it, in what forms and with what consequences. As this would suggest, the distribution of noise is also a sociological matter that speaks to the issues of privacy, invasiveness and the zonal distribution of housing, buildings and services. Yet there is still a need to take up Robert Merton’s challenge in one of the first statements (from 1951) about a housing sociology that this should be concerned with the psychic pressures implied by rising urban density. For Merton housing studies should be very interested in the potential compromise of personal privacy and pressure generated by the kinds of new built environment springing up at that time, notably the new housing projects. This neatly leads us to the kind of sonic ghettos being generated by poorly constructed flats in the private sector, particularly since the advent of the urban renaissance under the UK Blair government – waterfronts and central city spaces populated by ranks of low quality buildings that don’t allow their residents a sense of privacy, autonomy and control over their daily lives. Stories of noisy neighbours, hearing people urinating upstairs, coughing, placing cups on hard surfaces in adjoining kitchens and, ahem, more private acts.

The effect of creating a built environment that pressures social subjects in these ways is not only to feel a loss of control from intrusion by others (neighbours no less) but also the sense of an impinging self-surveillance as expressivity and control within their primary social zone is reduced – if we can hear them, they can hear us! With this in mind their remains a need for urbanists to map the social power relations, the production of deficient built environments and the geographies of social stress generated by these effects. The deep misery of those affected requires us to consider such problems. The themes covered offer an agenda for developing further engagement by social scientists concerned with both the intangibility yet deeply affecting qualities of sound and noise in urban life today.

The silent lounge, Copenhagen airport

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