A few years ago, I rented a cottage on a Cornish farm for a week, to get some overdue writing done. It was gloriously peaceful, and I said as much to the farmer as I returned the keys at the end of my stay. “Oh yes,” he replied: “the chap before you said the same. Although what he actually said was: ‘I liked the quiet noise’.”
That curious phrase came back to me last spring, in that first lockdown when the world’s volume control slid down several notches. Suddenly, in place of the rumble of traffic and circling planes was silence suffused with birdsong.
Seismologists reported that human-generated sound was at its lowest level ever recorded; in its place, the natural world re-emerged. For many, it was a rare bright spot of lockdown: one survey found that 94 per cent of respondents were relishing birdsong more than before.
Compared to the perils of the pandemic, this sounds like small comfort. But excessive noise is more than just annoying. Studies show it’s linked to increased blood pressure, heart attacks and even obesity. And it doesn’t just affect humans: the impact of ships’ engines on marine mammals has been well charted, but noise pollution also interferes with everything from finches’ foraging patterns to the reproduction cycles of crickets.
The EU has tried to limit urban noise, but with scant success. Now, though, what can only be described as a quiet revolution is under way. Among its prime movers is architect and urban activist Dr Antonella Radicchi. She’s turned to citizen science, designing the Hush City app, which allows people to map the soundscape of their home towns, and to identify quiet places that others can enjoy. The app records 30 seconds of ambient noise, and then asks a series of questions about the location and the person’s experience of it.
It’s being used by authorities in Berlin who are drawing up the city’s ‘quiet area plan’, where it has proved something of a revelation. The planners had assumed that ‘quiet’ would be synonymous with the city’s major parks. Thanks to Hush City, Radicchi tells me, planners are now realising that small patches of peacefulness – “canal pathways, secret gardens, all the hidden nooks” – can be just as important. The Irish city of Limerick is poised to adopt the Hush City approach, too.
The quality of quiet, of course, is not just about decibels. “A running river and a passing car might both register 65dB”, says Radicchi. “Sound is objective, yes, but also subjective, emotional and qualitative.” Radicchi herself found the lockdown stillness an indicator of job losses and distress.
Such distinctions aside, we’re surely not designed to drown in cacophony. As Emmy-award-winning wildlife sound recordist Gordon Hempton tells me: “We’ve evolved in a world that is largely quiet. All animals rely on it for survival – to hear potential predators, or prey. You can’t feel secure when one of your most important senses can’t function properly.”
Alarmed at the retreat of natural quiet, he’s campaigned for its preservation – initially in the Olympic national park, close to his home in the US Pacific Northwest. With the help of sympathetic media coverage, Hempton persuaded several airlines to divert their planes from a precious swathe of quiet. A triumph of tranquillity – until the US Navy, delighted to discover an area free from commercial flights, started using it as a training zone for their aptly named Growler jets.
Quiet is our birthright – quiet should be for everyone
Undeterred, Hempton widened his horizons. Fired by a conviction that “quiet is our birthright – quiet should be for everyone”, he helped to found Quiet Parks International (QPI), with the aim of recognising existing areas – from wilderness preserves to urban areas, resorts and housing developments – which are maintaining that elusive quality.
Its first Wilderness Quiet Park has been declared in the Zabalo River region of Ecuador, where the indigenous Cofan people hope it will help them defend their way of life against outside intrusion. Taiwan’s Yangmingshan national park, on the edge of the capital, Taipei, is its first Urban Quiet Park.
QPI welcomes approaches from other communities keen to have their local tranquillity recognised. Like Radicchi, Hempton stresses it’s not about quiet 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, rather than machines, to dominate. You should be able to hear the rustle of leaves when the wind blows, the finer notes of a bird’s song.” You should, he concludes, “be able to hear your footsteps”. Quiet noise, indeed.
Martin Wright is chair of Positive News.
Main image: Robert Thiemann