A few years ago I rented a cottage on a Cornish farm for a week, to do some back work. It was gloriously peaceful, and I told the farmer as much as I returned the keys to him at the end of my stay. “Oh yeah,” he replied, “the guy before you said the same thing. Although what he actually said was, ‘I liked the quiet noise.’
That curious phrase came to mind last spring, in that first crash when the world’s volume control went down several notches. Suddenly, instead of the noise of traffic and circling planes, there was a silence filled with birdsong.
Seismologists reported that human-generated sound was at its lowest level ever recorded.; instead, the natural world re-emerged. For many, it was a rare bright spot of the confinement: A survey found that 94 percent of those surveyed enjoyed the song of birds more than before.
Compared to the dangers of the pandemic, this seems like a small consolation. But excessive noise is more than annoying. Studies show that it is linked to increased blood pressure, heart attacks, and even obesity. And it doesn’t just affect humans – the impact of ship engines on marine mammals is well documented, but noise pollution also interferes with everything from finch feeding patterns to cricket reproductive cycles.
The EU has tried to limit urban noise, but with little success. Now, however, what can only be described as a silent revolution is underway. Among its main promoters is the architect and urban activist, Dr. Antonella Radicchi. She turned to citizen science, designing the Hush City app, which allows people to map the soundscape of their home cities and identify quiet places that others can enjoy. The app records 30 seconds of ambient noise and then asks a series of questions about the person’s location and experience.
It is being used by the Berlin authorities who are drawing up the city’s ‘quiet zone plan’, where it has proven to be a revelation. The planners had assumed that “tranquility” would be synonymous with the main parks of the city. Thanks to Hush City, Radicchi tells me, planners are now realizing that small spaces of peace – “canal paths, secret gardens, all hidden corners” – can be just as important. The Irish city of Limerick is also poised to take the Hush City approach.
The quality of silence, of course, is not just about decibels. “A rushing river and a passing car can register 65dB,” says Radicchi. “Sound is objective, yes, but also subjective, emotional and qualitative.” Radicchi herself considered the stillness of the confinement to be an indicator of job loss and distress.
Those distinctions aside, we are surely not designed to drown in cacophony. As Gordon Hempton, Emmy Award-winning wildlife sound recorder, tells me: “We have evolved in a world that is largely silent. All animals depend on it to survive, to listen to possible predators or prey. You can’t feel safe when one of your most important senses can’t function properly. “
Alarmed by the retreat of the natural tranquility, he campaigned for its preservation, initially in Olympic National Park, near his home in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.With the help of comprehensive media coverage, Hempton persuaded several airlines to divert their planes from a beautiful stretch of tranquility. A triumph of tranquility, until the US Navy, delighted to discover an area free of commercial flights, began using it as a training area for its aptly named Growler jets.
Silence is our birthright, silence should be for everyone
Undeterred, Hempton broadened his horizons. Driven by the conviction that “silence is our birthright, silence should be for everyone,” he helped found Quiet Parks International (QPI), with the aim of recognizing existing areas, from natural reserves to urban areas, tourist complexes and housing developments, that maintain that elusive quality.
Its first Wilderness Quiet Park has been declared in the Zabalo River region of Ecuador, where the Cofan Indians hope it will help them defend their way of life against outside intrusion. Taiwan’s Yangmingshan National Park, outside the capital, Taipei, is its first peaceful urban park.
QPI welcomes approaches from other communities eager to have their local tranquility recognized. Like Radicchi, Hempton emphasizes that it is not about silence at all costs. (A quiet park would be sad without the sporadic sounds of children playing.) Instead, he says, it’s about allowing “the sounds of nature to dominate, rather than machines. You should be able to hear the rustling of the leaves when the wind blows, the finest notes of a bird’s song. ”I should, he concludes,“ be able to hear its footsteps. ”A quiet noise, in fact.
Martin Wright is president of Positive News.
Lead Image: Robert Thiemann