Hear Hong Kong's cry for relief from noise pollution

Michelle Wong says Hong Kong needs stricter enforcement of rules that protect us against excessive noise, and better urban design to start with

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 September, 2013, 12:35am

The Mong Kok pedestrian precinct has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The attempted prosecution of street buskers SMS was one and the swearing incident involving primary school teacher Alpais Lam Wai-sze was another. Both cases posed the same problem to residents - noise pollution.

Noise is all around us in Hong Kong. Over 6,000 such complaints were made last year, second only to the more than 13,000 complaints about air pollution.

A joint survey by the Environmental Protection Department and Chinese University found that about 11 per cent and 8 per cent of the Hong Kong adult population felt "highly annoyed" by renovation noise and traffic noise respectively, the latter being the primary cause of sleep disturbance.

Noise pollution, whether from construction work, commercial activities, industrial operations or traffic, is covered under the noise control and environmental impact assessment ordinances. The Environmental Protection Department and police are responsible for enforcing noise control. That being the case, complaints tend to be treated in a passive way. Proactive enforcement of the rules is required.

Despite a relatively low level of vehicles per capita in Hong Kong, compared with other developed cities, traffic noise remains a serious issue. Much of the fault lies in the way our city has been planned; roads and highways are built close to residential buildings. The "wall effect" of streets and buildings makes for slower noise dispersion, resulting in levels that frequently exceed the acceptable guideline of 70 decibels.

Measures already exist to reduce excessive noise in neighbourhoods, including the use of barriers, enclosures and low-noise road surfaces, some of which have been selectively implemented. The most effective, and perhaps obvious, way is to consider the impact of traffic noise at the design stage. This should include ensuring an acceptable distance between residences and traffic areas, and attention to the positioning of windows and bedrooms, for example. Noise emission standards should be tightened.

Information is needed before a solution can be identified, and the government should consider conducting surveys to gather location-specific details about how noise affects residents. That way, specific measures can be used to meet the unique conditions of each area.

The Environmental Protection Department describes the current method for tackling the problem as a four-pronged approach. That is, in addition to planning, abatement and control, partnership with stakeholders and public education are also needed. Given that it's best to eliminate noise at source, education and compliance are crucial. According to the department, programmes with various industries that are the "subject of most public complaints over the past decade" have been implemented. Yet, persistent complaints suggest much more needs to be done.

Noise aggravates stress, affecting our cardiovascular and immune systems. In noise control, much more effort is needed from the government, business and the public if Hong Kong is to become the prosperous and liveable city that we desire.

Michelle Wong is communications manager at Civic Exchange