Creative solutions to give noisy Hong Kong a rare slice of silence

With noise pollution continuing to worsen, it's time to get serious about urban sound planning, writes Jamie Carter

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 May, 2013, 5:17am

Cities, workplaces, stores and homes are meticulously planned in terms of their construction, efficiency and cost, but little thought goes into how they sound.

The neon lights and bustle of Nathan Road might excite tourists, but the onslaught on the ears from busy traffic, blaring horns, pneumatic drills and general street noise takes its toll. We have urban planners, but where are the urban sound planners?

"You have no ear-lids - you can't block out sound," says Julian Treasure, chairman of The Sound Agency and creator of soothing soundscapes for retailers, offices and airports across the globe.

"Why do we end up sitting in restaurants where we have to shout from a foot away to make ourselves heard by our dinner companion, or in planes where someone talks through an old-fashioned telephone handset on a cheap stereo system, making us jump out of our skins? We're designing environments that make us crazy."

He singles out hospitals, where noise levels - menacing-sounding beeping machinery, humming computers and general din - have doubled in the past 40 years, Treasure claims. It affects patients, whose sleep is degraded, delaying recovery, and staff, who cannot concentrate, so are prone to making errors.

"Sound affects us psychologically, cognitively and behaviourally, even though we're not aware of it," says Treasure, who thinks it is time cities were designed for our ears, not just our eyes in what he calls "invisible architecture".

But he is not the only one on the warpath against noise pollution. There's some sound advice for our homes, too.

"Sound is a pillar of our existence that has been ignored," says Poppy Elliott, who runs Quiet Mark, a Britain-based non-profit arm of the Noise Abatement Society that is busy testing consumer products such as kettles, refrigerators and the "big noisy three" - washing machines, dishwashers and hairdryers - in an attempt to compile and certificate the quietest products on the market.

You have no ear-lids - you can't block out sound ... we're designing environments that make us crazy
Julian Treasure, The Sound Agency

"We've had the golden age of design technology and we've got every single machine conceivable that does everything for us … but maybe the way those machines sound hasn't been given a high enough priority," she says.

Elliott started Quiet Mark last year and has since scoured the globe for the quietest products available, from air conditioners and alarm clocks to lawnmowers, shower pumps and refrigerators.

"Until now it's only been the expensive products that have been quiet, but it's starting to filter down to all areas of the market," she says.

"We like to test the products in-house because sometimes you have a low-noise washing machine that has a sudden loud beep at the end of the cycle - it's never explained on the box when you buy it, and you can't take it back for that."

Although Quiet Mark is concerned with domestic consumer products, it also covers the machines at the heart of why our cities are so loud, from cars, pallet trucks, lawnmowers and power tools to the hand dryers, shredders, buzzing computers, air conditioners, portable fans and printers. It's a wonder any of us can concentrate - or perhaps we actually can't.

Research by the department of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, into the effect of urbanisation on a Namibian tribe found that those who had remained in a rural environment were better able to concentrate in cognitive tests. The research suggests that people living in urban environments - and that's currently around half of humanity - are less able to concentrate on a task than people who live in remote areas.

The study compared members of the remote and traditional Himba tribe (who are cattle herders living a secure and self-sufficient existence in the open bush of northwest Namibia) with both urbanised Himba and people living in Britain. Tasks were given to all participants to determine how well they could ignore peripheral information, such as identifying which way a central image of a human head was facing despite it being surrounded by other heads facing in other directions.

"This research suggests a trend that people who live in less urbanised areas … may be in a better cognitive state to concentrate on tasks than those who live in large cities," says Karina Linnell from Goldsmiths.

It's hard to pin down exactly what it is about city life that drives us all to distraction. Visual distractions in a city are numerous, but the effects of unwanted sound - particularly the phone calls and chatter of colleagues in an open-plan office - are at least partly to blame for our collective loss of concentration at work. They might break down barriers and foster a collective sense of purpose, but the now ubiquitous open-plan office is not a productive environment.

Office workers are 66 per cent less productive in an open-plan office than on their own, claims Treasure. For example, if someone is sitting next to us and having a telephone conversation, it's very difficult to read or write.

"We have the capacity for about 1.6 human conversations. So if you're listening to one conservation in particular, you're only left with 0.6 for your inner voice that helps you write," he says.

That is why working in front of the television, or with the radio on, means taking much longer to complete a task. Bad sound is wasting our time, and therefore costing us money.

"Where are the office sound planners? The people who'll say, 'Don't spend all your budget on a huge screen in a conference room then place one tiny microphone in the middle of the table for 30 people'?" says Treasure.

There is a simple solution to all this, and it is catching on fast. Sales of headphones have hit an all-time high in recent years, and are now a common sight in workplaces, while pricey noise-cancelling models are often seen in planes.

For those trying to concentrate, randomly generated ambient sounds are the best for blocking out unwanted sound - try Brian Eno's Music for Airports - while the "birdsong = safety" equation in our collective subconscious makes the playing of forest sounds calming.

Wearing headphones, however, is a mere band-aid solution. "It's frightening just how many people are now wearing headphones, as if they're trying to escape the world we've created," says Elliott, who fears that communication is shutting down as we all go off into a fantasy world of our own.

"Many people take refuge in headphones, but they turn public spaces into millions of tiny sound bubbles," says Treasure, who worries that no one is listening to anyone any more. "Conscious listening always creates understanding - a world where we don't listen to each other at all is a very scary place indeed."