Noise is the New Smoking

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Noise in Providence: orange is the loudest, green the quietest. Courtesy of Brown University School of Public Health

Whether it’s the frame-rattling, wall-penetrating bass of car stereos with over-sized subwoofers, the growl of modified mufflers, the inescapable day- (and often night-)long blare of house parties, the grating drone of leafblowers, or the sleep-depriving inundation of dangerously high volume levels from nearby entertainment venues, Providence is often excessively and unnecessarily loud.

Contrary to urban myth, unhealthy sound levels are not an immutable condition of city life, any more than crumbling bridges or unaffordable housing. Like those things, urban noise levels are the result of public-policy choices that municipal officials make, and many residents feel they have little choice but to endure. But noise is increasingly recognized as a public health issue that governments must address.

Some cars carry special sound equipment to make their music even louder.

Some noise is inevitable in any city, but harmful noise levels are not. “It’s important to distinguish between the types of sounds that [urban areas naturally] produce,” says Prof. Tor Oiamo of Toronto Metropolitan University, and “the types of unnecessary noise that we’re willing to deal with and accept.”

In her 2021 election campaign for City Council, long-time Providence resident and political activist Dolores De Los Santos noted that, “As I knock on doors in my neighborhood, I frequently hear complaints from neighbors about excessive noise: whether it be a group of ATVs, a busy intersection, a nearby highway, a raucous nightclub, or a house party that has gone on late into the night. No Providence resident should be expected to tolerate these intrusions.”

The Providence Noise Project launched in 2019 in response to the excessive levels of noise in the city. The all-volunteer, resident-driven non-profit organization seeks to curtail unnecessary sources of noise and reduce unavoidable ones to long-established and healthier legal levels.

Among the most prevalent sources of noise the Project hears about from city residents are:

  • Vehicular — This includes modified mufflers (which are illegal under Providence, Rhode Island, and federal laws but openly sold, installed, and used here), over-amplified stereo systems at dangerous and illegal volumes (but largely ignored by city authorities), early-morning garbage trucks, and emergency vehicle sirens.
  • Residential — Mostly noise from loudspeakers on private property (often including professional-grade equipment used in bars and nightclubs) or in cars parked on public streets, fossil-fueled leafblowers (which burn a mixture of gas and motor oil), and construction.
Gas-powered leafblowers routinely exceed healthy noise levels.
  • Commercial — Music at excessive and unhealthy volumes emanating from bars, clubs, restaurants, and events that require city-issued entertainment licenses and permits (which stipulate compliance with legal noise limits), and occasionally other businesses.

A September 2023 Providence Journal article noted that in 2022, in the final year of Mayor Elorza’s administration, residents submitted 5,499 noise complaints, or about fifteen every single day, to the Providence Police Department, which deemed only eight of them “unfounded.” Yet it issued only nineteen citations — less than 1% of all complaints — for noise violations in the entire city in 2022.

That contrasts sharply with the city’s far more effective response to two specific noise sources — ATVs and fireworks — that demonstrated it actually can and does curtail unnecessary and illegal activity when it wants to, and invites unfavorable comparisons to its relatively mild efforts in tackling the other, more ubiquitous noise sources listed above.

In his 2022 mayoral campaign, then-candidate Brett Smiley repeatedly cited noise as a long-standing concern. Unlike his predecessor, he acknowledged noise as a public health issue, and said that as mayor, he would “develop a plan” to address it. Yet after over a year in office — and despite repeated acknowledgment of residents’ concerns about noise — no such plan has been publicly unveiled yet.

Instead, the only public-facing noise initiative in the mayor’s first year was announcing funding to buy hand-held sound-level meters and train police officers in their use. What he didn’t make clear was that the new sound meters will be used to verify compliance with license requirements, and not for measuring noise levels from other sources that prompted thousands of resident complaints in 2022.

It’s also worth noting that the City Council similarly allocated money in 2017 for sound meters, which remain unaccounted for. If they were ever actually purchased, they did little to reduce noise.)

The city’s noise meters are not intended to monitor complaints about residential noise.

In January 2024, Mayor Smiley announced his interest in joining Newport as one of two RI cities exploring the use of noise cameras, which are similar to speed and red-light cameras, but detect and photograph excessively loud vehicles. But before it can deploy them, the General Assembly must amend state law to allow automated vehicle sound-monitoring, and it’s not clear if or when that will happen.

In the meantime, the Noise Project says, the city government could be doing a lot more to reduce noise. It has urged City Hall to take several basic steps that should already be under way. These include:

  • Develop and announce a comprehensive noise policy for Providence, and designate a (non-police) city official to implement it.
  • Launch a public information campaign to educate residents about the adverse health effects of noise, including adding information on the adverse physiological effects of noise to the Providence public schools’ health and wellness curriculum — both of which Smiley supported as a candidate.
  • Install sound meters around the city to measure noise levels on what Smiley described as “an ongoing basis in order to produce consistent data” and “regularly report” the results to the public.
  • Enforce existing noise regulations while simultaneously exploring new ways of doing so, such as the recently proposed noise cameras and a civilian noise-reduction unit akin to parking-control officers.
  • Use PVD’s existing Nuisance Task Force to target the relatively small number of recidivists responsible for a disproportionate share of noise in the city, who are the subject of repeated neighbor complaints.

Other than announcing the sound meters a year ago and the recent noise-camera proposal, residents haven’t seen or heard anything about noise-abatement efforts, leaving them to wonder what else, if anything, is being done to address the issue, and in the familiar role of having to do it themselves.

The municipal noise ordinances and state laws passed by our elected representatives make clear that no one is entitled to make excessive noise simply because they “live in a city,” they “like it loud” or think it’s cool, or think they have some special ‘cultural’ privilege to do so.

Generating excessive, unhealthy, and unnecessary noise is neither a birthright nor a lifestyle choice — it’s a form of air pollution and sonic assault. The Noise Project and others have been calling on the city to do more to “de-normalize” and prevent noise, rather than just reacting to it, and that requires a much more comprehensive effort than just acquiring sound meters or installing noise cameras.

After more than a year under new leadership, Providence residents continue to contact the Noise Project to complain that their neighborhoods are still far too loud, far too often. Their comments reflect widespread frustration, cynicism, and anger that a relatively small number of people continue to openly flout city noise limits with impunity, and a dearth of information about what officials are doing about it.

GET INVOLVED:

If your neighborhood suffers from excessive noise, here are a few things you can do:

  • Share your your experiences of noise using the Project’s Community Noise Survey so it can track locations, sources, recurrence, and severity of noise — and document residents’ plight to the mayor and media.
  • Contact your City Council representatives to tell them they need to actively address excessive and unnecessary noise, which is not healthy for anyone in PVD.
  • Contact the Noise Project to join other city residents on a Noise Project working group that is addressing vehicular, commercial, or residential noise — or propose a new working group to tackle other noise-related issues.

WEBSITE: www.providencenoiseproject.org

Paula Donovan is a long-time resident of the Elmwood section on the Southside and a recent Noise Project volunteer. She has been involved in a variety of community activities to make the community a safe and welcoming place for all, and has witnessed first hand how excessive noise has harmed the health and well-being of her neighbors. John Wilner has a background in the nonprofit sector, and volunteers as the Noise Project’s communications coordinator.