Oh for the quiet life: how Hong Kong battles with noise
With a new study underlining link between urban noise pollution – from traffic, building sites and street activities – and hearing loss, what can Hong Kong do? Tighten construction and speed curbs, and require double glazing
Taking a relaxing day off at home can be a challenge in this noisy city of 7.2 million where a neighbour’s renovations, honking car horns or jarring jackhammers can make you wish you were back at the office.
With a land area of just 1,073 sq km and a dense built landscape dominated by residential and office towers, some noise pollution is inevitable. And official numbers speak volumes.
In 2016, there were 43,939 “Complaint Noise” cases reported through the 999 emergency hotline, covering neighbourhood noise, the din from intruder alarms and loud construction.
Noise pollution has nagged humankind for centuries. In ancient Rome, chariots were banned from the streets at night, while in medieval Europe authorities did the same with horse-drawn carriages so people could sleep.
Today it’s a growing problem linked to economic development, prompting measures worldwide, including a 2007 ruling by the European Union that mandated noise mapping – a colour-coded graphic showing the sound level distribution in a given region – for cities with more than 250,000 inhabitants.
And for good reason. There is increasing evidence that long-term environmental noise above a certain level can adversely affect health. A 2014 study in medical journal The Lancet said: “Observational and experimental studies have shown that noise exposure leads to annoyance, disturbs sleep and causes daytime sleepiness, affects patient outcomes and staff performance in hospitals, increases the occurrence of hypertension and cardiovascular disease, and impairs cognitive performance in schoolchildren. We stress the importance of adequate noise prevention and mitigation strategies for public health.”
Mimi collated data on 200,000 people drawn from a hearing test administered via mobile phones, where respondents gave age and sex. Geo-location technology pinpointed the cities.
The study found that, on average, people in the loudest cities were 10 years “older” in terms of hearing loss than those in the quietest cities. It ranked 50 cities. Those without sufficient data were not included in the study.
Scientists discovered a correlation between hearing loss and noise pollution in 64 per cent of cases.
Leading the pack for high-decibel urban areas was Guangzhou in southern China, followed by New Delhi, Cairo and Istanbul. Zurich, Vienna, Oslo, Stockholm and Munich were the lowest ranked.
Hong Kong was ranked at 34, while Shanghai was also on the global index at 39.
“With this Worldwide Hearing Index, we wanted to highlight the importance of good hearing and hearing health,” says Henrik Matthies, managing director of Mimi Hearing Technologies.
Matthies says hearing is one of the most important senses, but despite this has “no lobby and little awareness”.
“Smartphone technology nowadays makes it easy to take the first step, test your hearing and get informed about your hearing health,” Matthies adds.
Hong Kong has taken steps that have reduced noise pollution. In 1998, the airport relocation from Kai Tak in Kowloon to Chek Lap Kok gave relief to 380,000 people who had been exposed to severe aircraft noise – although safety was a bigger reason for moving it out of the city.
In 2012, the Environmental Protection Department used noise-mapping technology in a citywide study to gauge the impact of traffic noise on public health. Tapping international and local experts in acoustic and medical science, it comprised a household survey covering 10,000 dwellings, one of the largest studies in the world.
It found no conclusive evidence that high levels of noise are associated with long-term risk of strokes and heart disease.
The department also said there was no direct correlation between the number of complaints in a district and the noisiness of the district. “This is because in most cases, noise from a specific source affecting individuals is localised and its effect can’t be generalised to a district level. Besides loudness of a noise source, complaints can be triggered by many factors, such as time of occurrence, nature and duration of the noise source, ambient noise environment and individual tolerance,” the department said.
“Unlike noise from industrial, commercial, construction and neighbourhood activities, it cannot be controlled effectively through the Noise Control Ordinance.”
District Councillor Paul Zimmerman, who sits on the board of Civic Exchange, an NGO with a vision to create a more liveable and sustainable Hong Kong, says more can be done to ease the city’s noise problem.
He says a review is needed of the government’s Noise Control Ordinance to take into account the fact that Saturday is now a holiday for more people. “Only silent construction work should be undertaken on that day,” he says.
As for transport noise, Zimmerman says it can be reduced with a review of speed limits, while double glazing and double rubber strip window fittings can help reduce noise in flats. He says this also has an environmental bonus. “This should be made standard building requirements, as it helps to reduce heat and cooling loss.”
While the government tries to balance development with residents’ happiness, another balancing act is going on in Mong Kok, where street performers walk the fine line between entertainment and nuisance.
Every weekend, Sai Yeung Choi Street South is filled with performers, touts promoting products and services – as well as political activists.
On a chilly Saturday night it’s no different as hundreds gather to hear musicians and watch performances. On one side a man bangs noisily on drums while an amateurish guitarist blasts rusty sounds through the crackly speaker. Further up a woman screeches into a microphone to the tune of traffic.
This zoned area is part of a government plan introduced in 2000 to create more pedestrianised streets (vehicles are banned from 4pm to 10pm on Monday to Saturday; and from noon to 10pm on Sunday and public holidays).
“It’s way too noisy,” says 60-year-old Mrs Chan, putting her hands over her ears to make a point.
“If I lived in this area, I would be complaining about the noise – or I’d move.”
Nine dos and don’t for drivers from the Hong Kong government
*Use suitable gears to avoid excessive noise.
*Allow sufficient time and distance to stop your vehicle.
*Turn off the engine when you stop your vehicle to minimise environmental pollution and noise.
*Keep alert of abnormal noise from your vehicle and follow up with regular repair and maintenance.
*Accelerate or decelerate abruptly.
*Use engine braking or exhaust brakes unnecessarily to avoid loud noise arising from the use of these systems.
*Rev your engine unnecessarily during idling.
*Honk your horn unnecessarily.
*Adjust the volume of vehicle audio system to a level that would affect road users.