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Researchers Are Recording New York to Make it Quieter

A high-tech aural map could reduce noise nuisances throughout the city

Sssh. (James Kirkus-Lamont - Flickr/Creative Commons)
smithsonian.com

What does New York City sound like? The noise from the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple may define the city, but for many, the sounds from the city’s pushy, 24/7 vibe can also be a source of annoyance, from beeping trucks to jackhammers to screeching subways. But not for long: In an attempt to make the city quieter, reports The New York Times’ Emily S. Rueb, a group of researchers is creating an aural map of the city. 

It’s called Sounds of New York City, or Sonyc, and it’s the brainchild of a team of researchers looking to reduce noise pollution in the city. Thanks to a $4.6 million National Science Foundation grant, the project will first record city sounds using a distributed network of about 100 sensors starting with buildings around NYU's campus and eventually distributing sensors throughout the city. The monitors will slowly learn differentiate regular street sounds from nuisances like sirens and yelling. Then, researchers will use the trained sensors to figure out when and where noise nuisances occur and just how noisy the sounds are. Finally, the data will become available to users via apps that will let the public report noise nuisances, officials investigate them and researchers study their effects on public health. 

As Rueb reports, an independent technician verified that the recording devices, which don’t record continuous sound, won’t be able to listen in on conversations or provide private information about people in city streets. The microphones, she writes, have also been specially outfitted to withstand weather, would-be tamperers, and bird poop.

Sound isn’t just a nuisance in New York; studies have shown that it can have persistent health effects. As Eric Jaffe notes for CityLab, loud city sounds have been linked to everything from worse sleep to chronic stress, cardiovascular disease and cognitive impairment.

Despite city laws that restrict outdoor sound levels throughout New York, much noise in the city exceeds 70 decibels, nearing the level that can cause hearing loss with ongoing exposure. That fact does not go unnoticed by city dwellers, who use the city’s 311 line to report more noise violations than any other issue. In 2015 alone, reports Aaron Short for The New York Post, city dwellers made nearly 180,000 calls about noise, up 23 percent from 2014. 

Will using advanced technology to listen in on New York’s noise strip the city of its signature sounds? It’s doubtful—but if the project succeeds, it could improve the quality of life and health of millions of city residents. The New York of the future probably won’t be less pushy or cocksure, but it just might be a little quieter. 

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