Why Is Noise Not a Bigger Consideration in Smart City Planning?
Did you know that in 2018, the World Health Organization found that over 1.6 million healthy life years were being lost per year in Western Europe, all due to noise pollution? Noise is becoming an ever-greater threat to the health and wellbeing of people across the globe, as city infrastructures grow taller, wider, and smarter.
You might be thinking, what’s a little noise going to do? Maybe a little headache every now and then? Maybe lose a little sleep? Excessive noise exposure from as low as 65 decibels (think of loud laughter) can lead to permanent hearing loss, respiratory agitation, high blood pressure, gastritis, colitis, and even heart attacks. So having construction work just down the road, or driving down a crowded highway each evening, or having a flight path over your house, can all build up to some serious problems. So… what are the people in charge doing about it?
The concept of a ‘smart city’ is rapidly growing in popularity as new technologies become available to make the public’s lives better. A smart city is one which uses a vast array of sensors and algorithms to collect public data, which is then used to improve operations across the city by increasing the quality, performance, and interactivity of urban services. Many cities are incorporating new smart thinking into their designs. Barcelona, for example, uses GPS and traffic management software to ensure all emergency vehicles are given green traffic lights. Copenhagen and Google are working together to incorporate air quality reports into Google Maps using new sensors on the Street View cars. Cities across the world are incorporating electric vehicle charging stations, new low-energy “micromobility” transport options, and increased funding for green roofs, rain gardens, and other natural innovations.
Notice there’s one thing missing there? Noise pollution seems to be off the agenda. But that seems antithetical to the smart city ethos, right? Surely providing an environment within cities where people can relax, find tranquility and restore their health and energy is a key goal. Using modern tech to improve the everyday lives of citizens and give governments the data to build more functional cities isn’t just an ideal — it’s the only way forward. The problem with addressing noise is manifold: it’s hard to pinpoint exact sources of noise, it’s expensive to design and implement practical solutions to those sources, and many governments and private companies are brushing off the issue as irrelevant or impeding the swift progress of other projects. Tesla even added exhaust sounds to their electric cars as a band-aid to some safety concerns — safety concerns which could have been addressed in more efficient, or at least quieter, ways. There are also aspects of the smart city, such as drone deliveries or flying taxis, that could create massive noise issues. These are all valid issues, as noise is often an unavoidable aspect of living in a dense urban environment that is undergoing continuous development. But noise needs to be added to the smart city agenda immediately, and there are a number of ways being developed to integrate new noise monitoring tools and more old-school solutions into modern planning.
Acoustic sensors and monitors — essentially small, powerful microphone arrays — can create an accurate visualization of where particular sounds are coming from, how loud they are, when they started and finished, and can even be connected to cameras to provide full-sensory monitoring of noise pollutants.
Let’s use an example. A large indoor shopping center was built in an inner-city suburb a few years ago, and local residents have grown accustomed to the additional noise produced by personal and commercial vehicles going in and out. However, over time the situation has changed. The air conditioning equipment has been poorly maintained, increasing numbers of restaurants and nightlife venues have moved in and congestion has forced more deliveries in the early morning or overnight. These residents are now suffering a significant noise issue, but it is hard to assess and regulate the problem. To address the problem the local government installs an array of “smart” acoustic sensors around the shopping center, which determine which of these factors are contributing the most to the problem. In this case it was determined that the worst noise is coming from the center’s aging air conditioning units located at street-level, and is exceeding allowed levels. Working together with the center’s management company, the government could determine the most effective and efficient path forward. In this case, they will be enforcing strict maintenance schedules for any ground-level industrial equipment, and supplying the most affected residents with soundproof windows facing the center.
Those same sensors can also allow for greater public transparency of information, such as predicted timelines for construction projects, and accountability data for city initiatives to tackle particular noise issues.
We here at NoiseNet, along with dozens of other companies, community groups, and nonprofits around the world, are passionate about the dangers of noise pollution. By using Smart Directional Sensors, incorporating Artificial Intelligence driven analysis, we can assess noise nuisance more cheaply and effectively than ever before. We believe that ensuring a healthy, smart, and sustainable future means being aware of every aspect of our environment, and we see noise being overlooked constantly. If you’d like to learn more, reach out at noisenet.com.