'Poor residents get all the acoustical trash'

Epidemiologist Erica Walker looks at the impact of unwanted sound on communities from a public health perspective.

'Character' of sound as important as loudness, says researcher

Epidemiologist Erica Walker uses environmental exposure modeling and community surveying to determine the effect of noise on people's health. (Brown University)

Erica Walker's experience with noisy upstairs neighbours prompted a career change.

She was working as an artist and living in a basement apartment when a family with small children moved in. In an effort to build a case against them, she gathered data — recording sound levels, collecting her own saliva samples. While the hours of research didn't bring her relief from the noise, it did lead her to a career in public health.

"I realized that the problem was a lot bigger," said Erica Walker, an environmental health researcher and associate professor at the Brown University School of Public Health.

"[I learned] that community noise in particular was really significantly impacting the health of urban residents."

Walker founded the Community Noise Lab at Boston University, a platform that gathers information from real-time sound monitoring and citizen science to understand the relationship between community noise and health. In her work, Walker looks at how noise impacts mental and physical well being, and shapes cities and regulatory policies.

She spoke to Spark host Nora Young about what defines noise and how it poses an environmental justice problem.

Here is part of their conversation.

In your research, on the ground and in the lab, how have you seen noise affect people's health, both physically and mentally?

As a researcher when I was a doctoral student, I did a series of experiments where we looked at the impact of sound on these acute cardiovascular and stress responses— heart rate variability, the secretion of salivary amylase and cortisol, and blood pressure.

So we did see that noise and in particular low frequency sounds, which are those sounds associated with rumbling vibrations, bus engines, heavy truck engines and motorcycles, definitely impacted these acute cardiovascular and stress responses negatively above and beyond any other types of sound. That sort of gave me the green light to say, 'Well, what are the long-term impacts?' 

If you look at some of the epidemiological literature that's out there, you can see impacts ranging from mood disruption to more serious health impacts, ranging from cardiovascular related mortality, increased prevalence and incidences of hypertension, stroke and heart attack.

When we talk about the mental impacts, I live in a neighbourhood, which is very densely urban, and currently has a lot of construction noise. And I've wondered whether this psychological thing is partly just this feeling of, I don't know, almost like a helplessness or a lack of autonomy. It seems like there's nothing that you can do about it.

Yes, absolutely. In addition to measuring sound levels in Greater Boston, I also conducted a community noise perception survey. And one of the things that really stood out to me reading some of the responses was that people were like, 'I can't control it. I feel like if I report it, nothing will be done. It's constant,' all these things.

So I think ultimately, community noise issues leave community residents feeling like they have no control over their lives. It's a proxy for a lack of control. So imagine, what happens when someone has a lack of control over their life? Those people usually suffer from depression, anxiety and chronic stress.

As a noise researcher, I'm actually very much anti-quiet. Quiet denotes a power differential.- Erica Walker


In your research, have you come across any sort of inequalities or inequities with regards to the concentration of noise in some neighbourhoods compared with others?

One of the things that really bothered me about working in a state like Massachusetts, was the amount of privilege I was able to capitalize on. It is a fairly liberal state. It has all of these world class institutions. So there's an expert that you can email or call on the phone or stop by and visit that can help troubleshoot through problems. We have really great infrastructure, our governments are responsive to needs. So it was really easy to do a project like this.

However, a large part of the United States is not as fortunate. And in order for me to call my work successful, it needs to work in a place like Massachusetts, and it also needs to work in a place like Mississippi, which is my home state and actually the polar opposite of Massachusetts in terms of infrastructure, and everything. 

A large part of my work now with Community Noise Lab is figuring out what community noise looks like in a place like that. But we do see, from what I have measured in Massachusetts and across New England, that communities that are poor just have poor environmental soundscapes, but that's a fossil of poor urban planning. 

These communities are right next to the airport. They're right next to the industrial facilities. Richer communities have residents who can call their city council person or their senator and tell them about the issue. And it gets resolved. But because of poor urban planning, and I call it a contempt for poor residents, they get the brunt, they get all the acoustical trash.

I think that our acoustical soundscapes are a sign of poor urban planning practices that overly discriminate against poor people because they just don't have the resources to fight back. So that propagates.

You mentioned the cultural differences that exist in communities and how those can define what noise is. How have you seen that play out?

That's why it's very important for us as researchers to not go into a community assuming what noise is. 

Because in some cases, I could go into a community and one of the cultural practices is to have a barbecue on Saturdays or everyone goes out into the local park to grill, hang out and shoot basketball hoops. And that is loud on the sound level meter register, but it's also an expectation of the acoustical environment of that community. So it would be wrong for me to call that 'noise' if the consensus in the community is that it's something loud, but it's something that we want. 

And I think a perfect example of this is what happened a couple of years ago in Washington D.C. The city used to be predominantly Black. But over time it was gentrified, and as a result of that gentrification, the expectations of the acoustical soundscape changed. Prior to gentrification, there was a neighbourhood called the Shaw, where people would play this type of music called go-go outside on the loudspeakers. And that was just a part of the community. 

But as gentrifiers began to move in, their expectations of what the community should sound like changed, it was at odds with the long-term residents. So they were able to get that practice shut down. And for me, I felt like that was a great affront to the neighbourhood. These gentrifiers were coming in and changing what they felt like the soundscape should be like and trampling over the cultural aspects of the community. 

So as a noise researcher, I'm actually very much anti-quiet. Quiet sort of denotes a power differential. I feel like quiet is not necessarily the best end goal for a community when they're dealing with noise issues. It could be an appreciation and acceptance of the cultural aspects, or it could be quiet, it could be a bunch of different things.

Have you seen any policy changes made to address noise in urban space as a result of your work?

Not in any meaningful way. I've seen some things come out of California, where they banned gas-powered leaf blowers which are loud, which I think is great. But in order for us to get to the part that is going to really and significantly impact public health, we really need to challenge those policies from an urban design perspective. 

We need to really go back to the drawing board and ask ourselves, 'well, did we do this right?' And the answer is no. The answer is most people aren't going to do that because that's going to require money. It's going to require restoration. And a lot of people just think, 'hey, it's too expensive. So we're not going to even get into that.' They have their little boutique solutions, like banning gas-powered golf carts. 

But the reality is, we're going to really have to sit down and talk about how we've designed our cities and who we've made worse off as a result of our poor planning.

Written by Samraweet Yohannes. Produced by Samraweet Yohannes and Michelle Parise.

This Q&A has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with Erica Walker, click the 'listen' link at the top of the page.