📣 Silence is a Luxury Product. Noise is For the Poor.
Those with the least often have the most (noise).
I’ve been busy launching The Difference Engine at Arizona State University - a new kind of center where ASU students, staff and faculty build products communities can use to combat inequality.
Now that The Engine is up and running, I figured it was time to get back to this newsletter, especially since the issues we discuss are more important than ever before. More of these, as well as new episodes of the podcast, coming soon!
Lastly, I’ve moved from Ghost back to Substack as my publishing platform. Aside from the look, nothing else should change!
We all think of cities as noisy places. And a privileged set of Americans (myself among them) have some understanding of this noise as participants in the gentrification of America's urban centers. We've willingly accepted noise for the convenience of car-free commutes and access to cheaper housing (though cheap housing is now off the table).
The more racially segregated a city is, the louder living conditions are ... for everyone, regardless of their race or ethnicity.
But if you think the noise downtown is bad, it gets even louder in neighborhoods with high poverty rates and a greater proportion of Black, Hispanic and Asian residents. Startlingly, as Heather McGhee notes, the more racially segregated a city is, the louder living conditions are ... for everyone, regardless of their race or ethnicity.
Noise, like many other environmental pollutants, is not evenly distributed across different populations. Marginalized or disadvantaged groups such as the poor or those with lower levels of educational attainment tend to experience the highest levels of exposure to all kinds of pollution, including noise pollution.
Los Angeles is one America's most unequal cities. It has the highest rate of homelessness of any major city in the country and struggles to provide adequate city services to many citizens (one of the reasons I launched The Difference Engine in Southern California). As the map below demonstrates, a smear of noise runs like a scar across the middle of the city and includes the neighborhoods of Westmont, Inglewood and Lennox - all of which have poverty rates at or above 30%.
The Price of Noise
Loud areas, such as those near airports and major roadways, tend to have lower real estate values and are therefore the only neighborhoods that lower-income communities can afford. Significant research bears this out. For instance, neighborhoods where residents spend 40% or more of their income on housing are also the loudest neighborhoods in the country.
And these noises have impact on the health of those subjected to them, further contributing to the cycle of poverty. You don't need innumerable studies to tell you that constant noise pollution contributes to elevated stress hormones (by triggering the flight or fight response), blood pressure and a host of other chronic illnesses (though these studies exist).
The consequences to our mental health are even more troubling. The never ending din of helicopters circling above, public transit announcements, cellphone conversations and leaf blowers create a fog of distractibility in our minds that makes it hard to concentrate or process difficult emotions. This is why we turn off the radio when concentrating on driving to a new place, why we're reminded of our to-do list in the shower, and why inspiration strikes in the quiet, productive solitude of the night. Those privileged among us use silence for this very purpose, to distract us from difficult emotions and thoughts.
Solitude is also good for learning. I've witnessed this first-hand: my students who are able to study in quiet and peaceful environments do better than those who learn despite the noise around them. A number of recent studies now suggest word acquisition and reading are more difficult in loud environments, and poor kids suffer disproportionately. In a classic study, researchers discovered that compared to schoolchildren living higher up, those living on the lower, noisier floors of a public housing high-rise in Manhattan:
Had trouble hearing the difference between two similar words, such as "thick" and "sick" - even after noise had subsided.
Were worse at reading and critical thinking
Had overall lower learning scores across all metrics than kids on higher floors and that the relationship between the kids' scores and floor level was strongest for the kids who had lived in the building the longest.
There have been recent studies that bolster these results. Toddlers living in noisier low-income neighborhoods take significantly longer to learn new words - a trend that continues to adulthood and their counterparts who are able to learn in quieter environments learn faster.
The Price of Silence
Before the Industrial Revolution rural, lower-income Americans had a surfeit of silence and the ambitious and wealthy would leave for the hubbub and din of the city to make their fortunes. Today, silence is literally golden. It's decadent, sumptuous and rarer than we think.
Think of how much it takes to get away from noise.
We pay thousands to buy the relative quiet of business class on airplanes, or the soundproof walls of an airport lounge.
Regular headphones 🎧 cost $18 while noise cancelling headphones cost ten times as much.
Expensive cars are quieter 🚙. The Mercedes Maybach S600, often considered the quietest car in the world, will set you back $200,000 and is so quiet it induces nausea in first-time riders.
The Apple Watch ⌚️ - arguably still a luxury product for the 75% of Americans who would spend 1-2 weeks wages to buy one - warns you when the environment around you is too loud.
And in cities the wealthy build compound-like houses with 8 feet tall walls to block out unwanted noise, or they leverage zoning laws to build quiet suburban enclaves like Bel-Air or Marin, right outside the city.
Look, I don't want you think that all noise is bad. Sometimes it's nice to listen to some loud music, or spend time working in the din of a coffee shop. But noise becomes a problem and a pollutant when you don't have the ability to leave, to get away from the unwanted clamor of your environment.
So how do we curb noise pollution in low-income communities of color? A lot of the answers lie in the field of urban design, and frankly replicating what wealthier communities do already such as:
Building cul-de-sacs and dead-end streets in lower-income neighborhoods (now that you've read this, notice how many cul-de-sacs you see in poorer communities).
Depressing freeways and major thoroughfares below the level of adjoining residential areas.
When building new housing, locating bedrooms in the rear or center of a unit or home. Building garages between homes and the street can also provide additional noise barriers.
Mandating that contractors build subsidized housing properly instead of cutting costs. That they invest in proper sound insulation at or exceeding code, such as installing laminated glass and sealing windows with sound-insulating glue.
Encouraging the passage of local ordinances to create "noise curfews" in lower-income neighborhoods that prohibit loud noises during the early evening hours on weekdays when students are studying.
And finally, planting trees. Trees and shrubs around hospitals and schools and along busy roads helps reduce noise considerably.
These are just a few of the thousands of low-cost solutions available to us. Noise pollution in our most vulnerable communities is only going to increase and the sooner we do something about it, the sooner we improve all outcomes.
🎧 Now Playing on the UnfairNation Podcast
If you haven’t already, check out good friend Kinda Hibrawi’s soap shop: Mint & Laurel that supports at-risk artisans in Syria.
📅 Reading & Watching
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If you find it hard to laugh at yourself, I would be happy to do it for you.