Case for a sound policy to screen out pollution

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 May, 2009, 12:00am

Given the choice, most people would prefer to wake up to sounds such as the singing of birds or the lapping of the sea on a beach. This is a luxury few in Hong Kong enjoy. Instead, as summer approaches we are more likely to be greeted by the pounding din of jackhammers and the impatient honking of drivers' horns. Concrete jungles have a distinct way of generating noises that pierce the ear and ruin one's day. So it is encouraging to see a group of environmental policy experts trying to bring about change. People are concerned about pollution in our city, by which they mostly mean the contamination of our air and sea. But noise pollution can have a more immediate impact on people's sense of well-being; it probably has an effect on mental health, though this may be difficult to determine scientifically. Alas, Hong Kong's geography and the intensely developed nature of our urban environment do not support a peaceful existence, unless you are very rich. Peace and quiet come with an expensive price tag.

However, we have facilities and resources - from public gardens to country parks - that could considerably enhance the more pleasant sounds and screen out polluting noises. Lam Kin-che, director of Chinese University's environmental policy centre, has been trying to promote such awareness and encourage better designs for what he calls 'soundscape'. Traditionally, facilities have been built with a specific landscape in mind; builders, designers and architects rarely pay attention to their effects on ambient noise. This, as Professor Lam says, needs to change. Fountains and artificial waterfalls, for example, can help drown out unpleasant noises. The thoughtful use of trees, plants and sound barriers can also help.

British scholar Stuart Sim recently published a book, Manifesto for Silence, which pleads for the need for silence and pleasant sounds because they are essential to staying human and sane. A stereotypical view is that southern Chinese like noisy environments and Cantonese is a loud dialect. But besides festivities and some family gatherings, it is difficult to believe people want to be subjected to a noisy environment. It is time the Leisure and Cultural Services Department paid attention to soundscape designs.