There are no truly quiet nights in Dorchester, Massachusetts. The constant hum of nearby traffic makes that impossible. But most nights are at least calm — unless a police car is approaching, lights flashing. On this summer evening, a resident has called the cops on a suspicious black woman standing in front of his house. She’s holding something in her hand, pointing it in various directions.
That something is a sound meter, as the resident and the police would later learn. And that black woman, a Ph.D. student at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is waving it around because she’s monitoring noise levels in the neighborhood — even if someone calls the cops on her. Erica Walker, the noise mapper, won’t be deterred from doing her work, even in predominantly white areas of Greater Boston.
Walker made a splash in October 2016 by publishing an unprecedented noise report on the Boston region, assigning failing grades to 11 of the 13 neighborhoods she assessed, including Dorchester. Walker’s goal is to raise awareness about how constant urban noise is affecting people’s lives and health. While research has firmly linked noise to sleep disturbances and stress-related health problems, very few scientists have studied noise in urban neighborhoods. Walker’s report is the first large, citywide survey done in the United States.
Walker, who describes herself as a former sufferer of constant noise from her neighbor’s kids, is passionate about her project. She’s biked to 400 different locations in the Boston metro area, covering over 3,000 miles. And she’s had little guidance along the way — no researcher at Harvard studies noise in the way she wants to. Together with an artist and a geographer, Walker turned 1,200 of her noise surveys into digital maps charting noise levels, residents’ perceptions of noise, and the impacts of noise on health. The team’s Noise and the City website also includes portraits of, and interviews with, residents who have struggled with noise — doctors, dancers, teachers and many others.
“I’m just here to listen to what people complain about, what bothers people and try to find solutions,” Walker says. “I’m not here to try to discover the next great thing. That’s not my role in life.”
When I Skyped into Walker’s apartment in Brookline, Massachusetts for an 11 a.m. interview, the first thing I heard was a merry laugh, and then, “Can I not turn on my camera? I just woke up. I’m a mess.” Finally, the 37-year-old turned on the camera and there appeared her round face, caring eyes and short braided hair.
After learning about her grinding daily schedule, I was glad she slept in that day. It’s not fun to get up at 3:30 a.m., bike to the office and work for hours before teaching at 8 a.m.
All that effort paid off with the release of her noise report, which was the subject of several news stories in places like The Boston Globe and The Atlantic. She also won the respect of her colleagues in the Boston research community.
“Before completing her Ph.D. she has done something that’s never been done in the [United States] before,” says Dr. Rohit Chandra, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Chelsea location. They became friends when Walker approached him after a lecture to ask whether chronic noise could actually cause physiological stress. “I said, ‘Yeah absolutely’,” Chandra recalls.
There’s good evidence, Chandra says, that noise could affect the stress hormone cortisol. Specifically, several studies show that noise exposure releases the stress-creating chemical. Noise can also impact the sympathetic nervous system, which regulates heart rate and blood pressure, thus increasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Previous research has looked at how noise from airplanes affects people who live near airports; Walker’s study is helping to do the same for the buzzes, honks and rumbles of everyday life in the rest of the city.
A key to her success, Chandra says, is that Walker “really did a very nice job of pulling people in … Whatever expertise she did not have she does a great job asking people who do have it.”
Marcos Luna, a geographer at Salem State University, is one of the experts recruited by Walker. He co-authored the noise map report along with Walker and an artist named Julio César Román, who also designed the project’s website.
When Walker visited Luna’s house to measure noise levels — his wife had seen a posting from Walker on their neighborhood’s Facebook group — Luna got excited about her project. He studies environmental justice and knew that lower-income communities are especially noisy.
Walker certainly left an impression on Luna. “To tell you the truth,” Luna says, “being a woman of color doing scientific research like that is very encouraging because I don’t see a lot of women in science [to start with]. That was impressive.” He’s right: Only 2.7 percent of early-career Americans with a doctorate in science and engineering are black females, according to the latest report by the National Science Foundation.