A silent revolution: regaining the best of locking silence
A few years ago, I rented a cottage on a farm in Cornwall for a week, to write overdue texts. 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 said was, ‘I liked the silent noise.’
This curious phrase came back to me last spring, during that first lockdown when the global volume control slipped several notches. Suddenly, instead of the roar of traffic and the circling planes, there was a silence steeped in birdsong.
Seismologists reported that human-generated sound was at its lowest level on record; in its place, the natural world has resurfaced. For many, this was a rare bright spot of lockdown: A survey found that 94% of those polled enjoyed birdsong more than before.
Compared to the perils of the pandemic, that seems like a little comfort. But excessive noise is more than 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 ship engines on marine mammals has been well mapped, but noise pollution also interferes with everything from finch feeding patterns to cricket breeding cycles.
The EU has tried to limit urban noise, but with little success. Today, however, what can only be described as a quiet revolution is underway. The architect and urban activist Dr Antonella Radicchi is one of its main driving forces. She turned to citizen science, designing the Hush City app, which allows people to map the soundscape of their hometown and identify quiet places that others can enjoy. The app records 30 seconds of ambient noise, then asks a series of questions about the person’s location and experience.
It is used by the Berlin authorities who are drawing up the city’s “quiet district plan”, where it turned out to be a revelation. Planners had assumed that “quiet” would be synonymous with the city’s large parks. Thanks to Hush City, Radicchi tells me, planners now realize that small plots of peace – “the canal lanes, the secret gardens, every hidden corner” – can be just as important. The Irish city of Limerick is also on the verge of adopting the Hush City approach.
The quality of silence, of course, is not limited to decibels. “A flowing river and a passing car could both register 65 dB,” says Radicchi. “Sound is objective, yes, but also subjective, emotional and qualitative.” Radicchi herself found the stillness of the lockdown to be an indicator of job losses and distress.
These accolades aside, we are certainly not designed to drown in cacophony. As Emmy-winning wildlife sound recorder Gordon Hempton tells me, “We have lived in a world that is largely calm. All animals depend on it for survival – to hear potential predators or prey. You cannot feel secure when one of your most important senses cannot function properly. “
Alarmed by the retreat from natural calm, he campaigned for its preservation – initially in Olympic National Park, near his home in the US Pacific Northwest. With the help of sympathetic media coverage, Hempton persuaded several airlines to hijack their planes from a precious band of calm. A triumph of tranquility – until the US Navy, elated to discover an area free from commercial flights, began to use it as a training area for its aptly named Growler jets.
Tranquility is our birthright – Tranquility should be for everyone
Undeterred, Hempton broadened his horizons. Driven by the belief that “calm is our birthright – calm should be for everyone,” he helped found Quiet Parks International (QPI), with the aim of recognizing existing areas – from nature reserves to urban areas, resorts and housing estates – that maintain this elusive quality.
Its first Wilderness Quiet Park was declared in the Zabalo River region of Ecuador, where the indigenous Cofan people hope it will help them defend their way of life from outside intrusions. Taiwan’s Yangmingshan National Park on the outskirts of the capital, Taipei, is its first quiet urban park.
QPI welcomes the approaches of other communities wishing to have their local tranquility recognized. Like Radicchi, Hempton emphasizes that it is not about calm 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 rustling of the leaves when the wind blows, the finer notes of a bird song. You should, he concludes, “be able to hear your footsteps.” Quiet noise, indeed.
Martin Wright is President of Positive News.
Main picture: Robert Thiemann