Construction sites, planes flying over head, cars honking, loud music blasting, all contribute to the soundscape that make up Boston and in turn affect the residents who live and work in the city.
Erica Walker, a doctoral student at Harvard T.H. Chin School of Public Health, has set out to measure and see how all of these sounds are affecting human health in our neighborhoods.
In her 2016 noise report, which is the first comprehensive noise assessment of the Greater Boston community since 1971, she mapped, surveyed residents, and issued report cards for each neighborhood in order to better understand how sound both positively and negatively influence sound levels and sound perception.
Decibel level wise, some of the loudest places in the city are Chinatown and Downtown but the perception of noise is highest in places like East Boston.
“Dorchester was the one that just went through the roof,” said Walker, adding that it had a lot of cars, construction sites, and more causing noise.
“They got everything. It really is the worst case scenario,” she said.
On the other hand, the Fenway – Longwood area also stood out to Walker because it showed all the same issues that a larger neighborhood would have, but packed into a smaller residential space.
“Dorchester is the biggest neighborhood so this is something you would expect because everything is there,” said Walker. “Fenway stood out because it is a smaller neighborhood but has all the bigger neighborhood problems.”
Walker said she noticed that there was a lot of activity related around concerts at Fenway Park, college students, and even aircraft noise that contributed to this neighborhoods soundscape.
Walker took sound measurements at 400 sites within the city of Boston at various times of day.
Over 1,050 city residents completed the Greater Boston Noise Survey. Volunteers can continue to submit their survey’s online that will be part of a follow-up study to come out in 2020.
In order to gain feedback she took place in over 20 community, academic, and conference talks. Walker also paired up with Imagine Boston 2030 as it also gained feedback from residents around Boston.
Walker also analyzed noise complaints from the City of Boston and conducted sound portraits to get a more in-depth look at how sound effects people’s health.
The neighborhoods of Dorchester and Brighton-Allston area led the pack with the highest number of noise complaints this past year with loud parties on the weekend being the most often complained noise source.
Four Boston neighborhoods including, Dorchester, East Boston, South Boston, and Chinatown/ Downtown area, received a grade F, in terms of neighborhood soundscape. Jamaica Plain received a D minus.
For all survey respondents, the most annoying noise sources were any noise after 10 p.m., aircraft, construction, and tourism. These ratings change dramatically by neighborhood.
The most common self-reported health effect stemming from community noise is sleep and relaxation disruption.
Walker first became interested in how noise affects people’s health when she was a graduate student at Tufts University. In her off-campus apartment she encountered issues with the family that lived above her.
“The apartment above me had two kids that would run around,” said Walker. “It drove me crazy!”
When talking to the family and eventually the police didn’t do anything she went online to seek some help. She quickly learned that there was nothing the city could do and found an online board of people encountering the same issues she was having.
“I quickly realized there is a bigger picture than just me,” said Walker.
She hopes by issuing this report she gains a larger range of responses and gets people more interested and invested.
In addition, she hopes to see it as part of the City’s environmental study. By issuing the report cards Walker hopes to see future policies that regulate sound within the neighborhoods.
“This is such a huge issue,” said Walker. “People can’t sleep, can’t relax in their own home.”
You can read the full report and fill out the survey by visiting noiseandthecity.org.