Motivated to be closer to family, John Wilner and his girlfriend relocated from San Francisco to Providence in 2017. It was late June when the new homeowners settled into the city's Silver Lake neighborhood, he recalled, and Fourth of July celebrations were beginning in earnest.
"As soon as we got here, the fireworks season started," Wilner said. "We were surprised by how long the fireworks would go, and by how late."
As longtime residents of major cities, the couple dismissed the nightly fireworks initially but soon found that the city’s excessive noise levels — from constant rumbling of road traffic, daily blaring of gas-powered leaf blowers, jarring bursts of construction machinery and at-times over-amplified music from area restaurants, bars and night clubs — weren't an isolated occurrence.
Through talks with neighbors, Wilner learned that the disturbances were causing unrest and distress to hundreds of Providence community members, and that formal complaints and calls to city officials would often go unanswered.
So he and other city residents took matters into their own hands.
To advocate for long-term noise reduction solutions that could improve health and quality of life for local residents, they formed the Providence Noise Project. While the volunteer group collects daily noise disruptions through a Community Noise Survey and outreach, their advocacy work requires impartial proof of just how loud it can be to live in the city. For that, they partnered with the Community Noise Lab at Brown University to capture new data that shows noise levels in city neighborhoods.
"The first step to bringing change is to acknowledge that there is a problem," Wilner said. "We wanted to figure out a way to see how loud the city really is, and the data will set that baseline."
Housed in Brown’s School of Public Health, the Community Noise Lab was founded by Assistant Professor of Epidemiology Erica Walker with the aim to work directly with local communities to inform solutions on their specific environmental issues using real-time monitoring and exposure modeling. In addition to noise, the lab also investigates air and water pollution. For the collaboration with Providence Noise Project and other future community partners, Walker developed a new Brown course, Environmental Exposure Assessments in Practice, which this fall deployed roughly a dozen undergraduate and graduate students to measure sound levels in 22 Providence neighborhoods.
"It's a class where we go out into the field and measure an environmental concern that is prevalent in Providence," Walker said. "We've started with noise pollution, but eventually, I'd like to expand to other issues and create a suggestion box where we work with concerned community members to develop a project that the students then take and run with — from conceptualization to actual data analysis."
To gather data on noise pollution in Providence, Brown students canvassed 180 city locations near interstate highways, construction sites, health care centers, schools and parks to collect 5-minute noise readings, day and night, using research-grade sound level meters. The accumulated samples — which totaled 720 sound level measurements from across the city — allowed students to generate a community noise map and produce a report card, rating neighborhoods by noise.
Among the students’ findings, Upper South Providence and South Elmwood are the loudest neighborhoods in Providence — averaging roughly 69 decibels, close to the levels of a hair dryer. In comparison, Blackstone and College Hill are two of the quietest areas in the city — averaging 53 and 56 decibels, respectively, roughly as loud as the hum of a household refrigerator
Walker's work evaluating how sound impacts community health began in Boston. She spent years analyzing the noise pollution from Fenway Park games and concerts, and activities at Boston Logan International Airport. She said the noise monitor data in Providence equals that of larger cities.
"The sound levels were surprising — Providence is a small capital city, but its sound levels are comparable to big cities like Washington, D.C., and New York City," she said.
Igniting a community conversation
To share their findings, the students organized an early-December community noise meeting in the University’s Stephen Robert '62 Campus Center, convening close to 50 members of the Brown and Providence communities, including city residents, community leaders and local officials. Students reported on fieldwork data and pointed to patterns depicted on poster presentations, while residents asked questions on how sound is measured, regulated and reported.
Nightly disturbances from modified cars and illegal motorbikes motivated College Hill homeowner Ted Herman to attend the community event on campus. Data collection and public discussions are essential steps, Herman said, but the Providence resident believes fighting noise pollution is an undertaking that will take a herculean effort akin to the major media campaigns that stopped widespread littering and smoking.
"When the smoking laws started to shift, people were resistant, and it took a while, but eventually, people stopped,” Herman said. “It's rare now to see it in public environments, and I think we have to have the same kind of thing happen with noise. The bottom line is that it needs to be explained to folks that this is a shared concern because everyone's ears and quality of life are affected by this."
Excessive noise in cities disrupts sleep and makes hearing, concentrating and working more difficult, Walker said. Chronic exposure can cause permanent hearing loss, while sporadic and unexpected sounds invoke a stress response that can contribute to heart disease and high blood pressure.
"The major health disturbances come from the disruption of the quantity and quality of your sleep," she said. "Sound can also trigger the release of stress hormones — your palms are sweating, your stomach is turning, your heart is beating faster — and that constant stimulation of the fight or flight response can lead to the manifestation of serious diseases."
Among other findings, the students' research cross-referenced census data to evaluate socioeconomic factors and found noise levels to be louder in neighborhoods with larger populations of low-income families and residents from underrepresented populations. As a public health researcher, Walker sees her charge as critical to understanding, communicating and advocating for those environmental justice and health inequities.
"I view public health as a tool to make sure that everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status, can choose from a basket of goods that maximizes their health and well-being," Walker said. "Public health practitioners have a duty to make sure that whatever work we do will go into this basket of choices that anybody can choose from to better their quality of life."
Government-funded soundproofing resources for homes, sound-absorbing green spaces, and new, creative enforcement policies, including “noise cameras,” were among the proposed solutions raised by students and community members at the event — most of which may be within reach, said Providence City Councilman John Goncalves, who was also in attendance.
Representing Ward 1, Goncalves addresses the need to reduce harmful noise pollution in Providence in his Quality of Life Plan. Last year, he proposed new regulations to limit the use of gas-powered leaf blowers. Speaking briefly to the group at the event, Goncalves said that by working together, more could be done to reduce unhealthy noise in the city.
"This is a perfect opportunity for us to define the different kinds of noise and decibel levels that are not in the current [noise] ordinance,” Goncalves said. “I would open that up to the students to look at modeling ordinances at other municipalities or to work with our policy staff to translate these recommendations into actual law. The more people that come out and testify and support these things, the more we can get them done."
While Providence Noise Project volunteers remain cautiously optimistic that local officials can stop excessive noise in the city, Wilner now feels encouraged that the noise level findings validate what he and other community members have voiced for years — that local noise levels are a serious issue and not a mere nuisance.
"I think the evening showed that people are concerned about this and that it's an issue in play," Wilner said. "I am gratified that their findings reflect that there's something to be done, and then the question becomes — what can we do about it."
This story was originally published by Brown University on December 12, 2022.