Public Silence


“It took decades to educate people on the dangers of second-hand smoke. We may need decades to show the impact of second-hand noise.” — Bradley Vite ,anti-noise advocate

More than a half of the world’s population lives in cities. It is well known that within a few years the density of cities will increase. This will cause a wide range of issues, of which health problems are the most worrying. People are generally aware of how bad air pollution is for our health, but another type of pollution needs to be addressed: noise pollution. Noise is now more widespread than ever before and it will get worse with the increase of people in urban areas.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Sound becomes unwanted when it either interferes with normal activities, such as sleeping, conversation, or disrupts or diminishes one’s quality of life.”(1)

Noise is unwanted sound. (2) It is heard mostly in big cities. The main cause is public transportation, followed by industry and people. Noise is measured in decibels, and people’s response depends on its duration, intensity, frequency and meaning. (3) When it exceeds 80 dB, it can be linked to an increase in aggressive behaviour. When it reaches 140 dB it can causes physical pain. (4) Shockingly, in a city like New York, people hear noise of 112 dB when inside the metro and 106 dB when on the platform.(5) On average EPA recommends a 24 hour exposure limit of 55 dB for protection against all noise-related health threats. (6)

Excess exposure to noise can threaten our well-being in a variety of ways, including to our physical (i.e. hearing impairment) and mental health. When we hear noise our body responds with the production of catecholamine which indicates a rise in stress levels. (7) Stress activates nervous response­­­­­­­s that leads to high blood pressure, increased heart rate and constriction of the blood vessels, thus increasing the risk of heart diseases. (8)(9) Noise is not directly linked to mental issues, but it is assumed to intensify and aggravate the development of mental disorders and social behaviours. (10) In children, noise affects their memory and ability to concentrate, it can also effect school performance and lead to misbehaviour. (11)

Despite actions taken by governments towards resolving this issue, the problem is still worrying. For example governments in the European Union have prepared noise maps of roads, railways, and airports in order to study noises (12), and in the Netherlands, the building industry is regulated o construct noise safe and healthy living environments. However these solutions will only improve individual noise exposure and only in private spaces.

The main issue is ‘life on the street,’ when people are actually occupying public spaces, noises are constant and inevitable. The worst part is that we are subjected to noise against our will in bars, restaurants, supermarkets, parks, sport venues, streets and squares. We are literally surrounded everywhere we go. So how does this influence our social life and behaviour?

Some research has indicated that increased levels of noise are associated with lower levels of social interaction. (13) This is due to higher levels of annoyance, frustration, dissatisfaction, anxiety, disappointment, anger and exhaustion. (14) When people find themselves in these states they tend to be less altruistic (i.e. less helpful to others). This can lead us to living our lives in a very individual and asocial manner, especially in large conurbations. Noise is one of the many reasons, together with booming information, visual stimuli and technology, which gives us the feeling of being alone and the feeling that we need to rest more than we previously required. Since we are social creatures, this attitude is affecting our well-being and our quality of life.

“sound and city-how noise pollution threatens urban-life”

People may think loneliness in cities is caused by modern times, but the famous painting `Nightwalks’ by Edward Hopper, illustrates three people sitting in a diner at night without interacting, portraying how lonely life could be in big cities even in the 1920s. During those years, with the advent of machinery, industry and the development of motorised transportation, many other artists depict the noises of cities as inspiring rhythms or dynamic compositions. For example composer Edgard Varese brought the noises of 1920s New York into concert halls. Sound artist John Cage took it even further with his investigative work. In his book A Year from Monday (1967), he wrote, “I am less and less interested in music… because I find environmental sounds and noises more aesthetically useful than the sounds produced by the world’s musical cultures.” On another occasion he said, “Traffic noise gets louder and quieter, higher and lower, longer and shorter. And I’m completely satisfied with that”. (15)

John Cage

Noise pollution today remains a problem for the majority of people, and it will continue to be for the foreseeable future in metropolitan areas. There is no actual solution to eliminate artificial noise in cities, we can try to reduce it, regulate it and sometimes control it, but we cannot completely cancel it.

So how do we deal with noise?

Cage created a piece of work in 1952 called 4’33’’ (also known as `silent’) exhibiting he and his partner sitting still on a stage in front of a piano. Ironically, this performance had nothing to do with silence, it was more a reflection on when does sound start and when does it end? (16) The piece was inspired by the white painting of Robert Rauschenberg, which is a piece based on the repetition of white canvases. The meaning behind this painting was that there is nothing to stare at specifically as there is nothing to listen to specifically in Cage’s performance. However, once you find yourself in front of the painting, you start noticing little changes of lights and shadows on the canvas and little changes of the colour white that you would not have noticed if you were actually staring at something more complex. Cage’s message with his piece is similar to Rauschenberg’s: when secluded from sound, the audience began hearing small noises that surrounded them and as a result people felt more present and more like they were participating in the environment. Similarly, when standing in front of Rauschenberg’s painting, the perception of being and the perception of time becomes stronger.

White painting, Robert Rauschenberg
John Cage, 4’33’’ performance

When you `listen’ to 4’33’’ the auditory concentration switches from the noises on stage to the space around you, to noises you make or sounds your body makes, such as a heart beat or breathing. Therefore noise is always around us, it does not start or end, it is always present. Silence, as in the lack of audible sound, (17) is quite impossible to achieve. However technicians have tried to replicate it inside an `anechoic chamber’ (an-echoic meaning “non-reflective, non-echoing, echo-free”), which is a room designed to completely absorb reflections of either sound or electromagnetic waves. (18) Anechoic chambers block out and absorb 99.9% of sound. Companies such as Harley Davidson or Whirlpool use these chambers to test their products and improve their sound. NASA/ESA uses them to replicate the absence of normal perceptual cues found in spce that lead astronauts to hallucinate. (19)

However, silence does not have to be scary. The silence people might look for today, can simply be found in the quietness of nature, or in the case of the Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge, in the most remote place on earth: the South pole. In 1993 Erling Kragge travelled alone to the South Pole without radio contact for 50 days. When he was there, in the middle of a white landscape looking at nothing, he said he could finally hear silence. He had many more expeditions and he recently published his last book: Silence in the Age of Noise. He states, “Silence is something deeply human that we have needed for thousands of years… For me, silence is not merely about the complete absence of sound; it is also about the ability to find wonder in the everyday.” (20)

We could conclude that silence is subjective and contextual. Some people enjoy the silence of a park, while someone else may need to go to a very remote place, such as the South Pole, to find the silence they crave.

When living everyday life in a big city, finding silence can be quite challenging. Even though there are plenty of spaces that have lower levels of noise such as, wellness centers, libraries, churches, museum, these remain all part of the interior sphere.

It is hard for cities and residents to make meaningful changes in overall noise levels. (21) As mentioned above, some actions have been taken by governments to regulate this issue, but these have prioritised the interior sector. Whereas, on a street level it is hard to think of places where people can experience silence.

Research has proven that people’s health is threaten by noise pollution, and the threat will become more real when cities will be overpopulated. It is a serious problem that needs to be addressed and acted upon.

We believe cities in the future might need the presence of quiet spaces in addition to people’s private homes. Easy accessible public spaces of `silence’ that are available to everyone, which are not necessarily related to nature or social isolation, but are rather connected to people’s daily lives and routes in modern cities, could be valuable additions to busy urban environments.

Erling Kagge, South Pole

This project is funded by the Creative Industries Fund NL