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Public Nuisance: Bring the Noise (and Light and Smells!)

Clearly, we've been working hard over the past two weeks to establish that urban design is indeed a matter of life and death through our Vision Zero blog series, Design for Our Lives. But this week, while we crunch the data on the various strategies cities are implementing to truly get to zero traffic fatalities, we thought we'd shift gears slightly to a seemingly more mundane aspect of urban design and planning - "nuisances..."
You see, Andy, our CTO and I, spent much of our time in Oslo incessantly (over)analyzing all things built environment, during the many walks we took all over the city. I swear pretty much every sentence began with "from an urban design perspective" and as you might imagine, our conversations were decidedly impassioned, lively, and unbelievably nerdy (aw, come on, if you're reading this, you know you do this too!). But some of the most heated discussions about planning were had after nights we'd both suffered from "Oslo-somnia" due to the not one, not two, but three quiet, restaurants by day, insanely loud nightclubs by night, pounding music till 3am, at least three nights a week outside our Grunerlokka (Nordic version of the East Village) apartment. I, in particular, was especially enlivened after evenings on which the sleepy Italian restaurant facing my window turned into Cafe Lokka at the strike of midnight (reverse Cinderella style), marked by its use of especially shiny, plucked from the 70s disco balls, whose refracted light somehow penetrated all three windows in my bedroom (even though only one of them faced the wanna-be Studio 54). So when Andy mentioned he wanted to turn these rants into a thoughtful blog post about these nuisances - and discuss why using this word to describe them undermines their actual impacts, I looked forward to his non-sleep-deprived, clearly more thoughtful take on these oft-neglected aspects of citymaking and why they deserve more attention and how better urban design can help mitigate them...Without further ado, Andy's take on nuisances: 

Nuisance, it sounds a bit dated, and a quick glance at Wikipedia along with my insufficient number of law courses is not enough to keep my head from spinning at the legal minutia. But in terms of urban living, there really are a large number of environmental nuisances that degrade our quality of life. These are tied to light, noise, smells, and air pollution, offenses that might be committed by you, your neighbor, a passerby, or even your friendly local municipality or large corporation. Many of these are immediately curable with common sense legislation, if said legislation is actually enforced. Some cities like Berkeley, California, for instance, have banned leaf blowers, yet they remain ubiquitous in the city, and the police would rather ticket cyclists safely yielding their way through stop signs than go after the gardeners. Fair enough. Other nuisances are systematic of bad urban design, such as freeways that cut through cities. But overall, we should be less tolerant of destructive nuisances and recognize how the slowly but surely degrade quality of place and life. A combination of enforced legislation and better design can help both rid us of these nuisances or mitigate their impacts.

Let there be light, but not too much!

 Utter stupidity. LED cobrahead streetlights.

Utter stupidity. LED cobrahead streetlights.

 Ghent, Belgium, shoot they forgot to install those floodlight LEDs!

Ghent, Belgium, shoot they forgot to install those floodlight LEDs!

Light pollution blows, or rather blinds. If you read Wolfgang's Schivelbusch's fine book, Disenchanted Light  about the social history of electric light, you learn that at its inception, electric light was intended to make night as bright as daytime! Lighting a sidewalk, living room, or restaurant is all well and good, but flooding the sky or our bedroom windows with stray electrons is a nuisance to both people and our plant and animal buddies. To me light pollution has three main causes. First, failing to use technology that turns off unneeded lights in buildings. Motion or sound detection lighting is also okay if the "on" state is strictly directed where it's needed without side effects. Second is security theater. There is an idea that more lighting is safer both inside and outside to protect us from the mugger hiding in the bushes. But most places that are unsafe are the result of bad urban design, especially streets that don't have friendly eyes on them because of low density, building setbacks, or lack of mixed-use buildings. And third is using streetlights to light streets for cars rather than street lamps that just illuminate the places people walk. Cars have been producing their own light at adequate intensity since at least 1912! I find it frustrating that many cities have managed to replace every streetlight with even brighter LEDs instead of ripping out all those cobrahead posts that tower over the street in favor of the beautiful street lamps of yesteryear.

Revving up at 7am, how about a cup of coffee instead? 

 Pneumatic waste collection system underground. Garbage trucks be gone!

Pneumatic waste collection system underground. Garbage trucks be gone!

Are your neighbors as thoughtless as mine are? How does an orderly society tolerate the bullies of the street, whether they are mean (or clueless) people roaring by on their hogs and muscle cars or the "necessary" evils like giant garbage trucks and 3AM sirens? Is pumping bad music out of your car stereo or living room window at midnight (or even noon) somehow covered by free speech in the Bill of Rights? And who decided that millions of people should have to wake up to roaring traffic noise because - highways? When we design for high density, we tend to forget that residents still need to hear crickets at night and birds in the morning. This is completely possible if we provide greenery on the street and in rear yards. But none of it matters if we don't take noise nuisances seriously. The enforcement of civility would certainly help. Loud noise outside of permitted hours just has to be fined, or it will never stop. And the education system should resume teaching good civic behavior. But if you aren't holding your breath for any of that, let's at least design our way out of the worst noise problems. It begins with the municipality, which has the police duty to protect us from harmful noises like sirens and garbage trucks. They can choose newer technologies (I love underground pneumatic garbage chutes) and remove or underground the mistakes of the past, like urban freeways, noisy heating and cooling systems, and other industrial relics. Cities must set aggressive targets for noise reduction, just like smog and greenhouse gases.

Air Pollution

Air pollution from factories and local businesses at the turn of the 20th century was the primary reason we ended up with Euclidian zoning laws (i.e., the separation of land uses). It's hard to imagine the odors and filth of raw sewage, horse-clogged streets, coal-fired heating and power generation, and garbage incineration that was common back then, unless you go severely Third-World urban today. We still have a long way to go toward getting pollution and odors out of cities. Cars, trucks, ships, and other transportation do the most harm, though battery and hydrogen technology might just bail us out without forcing any smart changes to urban design and transport, reducing the need for so many vehicles. There are a number of other temporary odors, like asphalt paving and roofing, that seem quite solvable with better technology and design. But looking toward Europe and places like Portland, OR, you don't need asphalt if you narrow the streets with permeable greenery and use paving stones for pedestrianization projects. Undetectable air pollution is equally or more insidious, such as fine particulates, chemicals, and poisonous and greenhouse gases. These are nuisances created less by bad behavior than bad policy. Banning or severely restricting production of dangerous chemicals, whether from the factory or automobile should be a national priority, but unfortunately has to begin with citizens and cities putting their foot down.

Good design is a nuisance neutralizer

 Trondheim, Norway. Streets for walking and gathering, with retail at the street level and housing and offices above, prevent most nuisances from the get-go, but also make people happy and respectful.

Trondheim, Norway. Streets for walking and gathering, with retail at the street level and housing and offices above, prevent most nuisances from the get-go, but also make people happy and respectful.

 A high density street in Copenhagen, Denmark is quiet, correctly illuminated, and minimizes pollution and noise nuisances of cars. 

A high density street in Copenhagen, Denmark is quiet, correctly illuminated, and minimizes pollution and noise nuisances of cars. 

Many of the 290+ design variables that we measure at State of Place correlate to increased walking, health, property values, and social life, and not surprisingly, these same variables can reduce daily nuisances. Now, living on streets with at least modest density and a diversity of building uses might seem ripe for abusive behavior by a few bad apples, but in practice there is more accountability and respect if streets are designed primarily for people and not vehicle traffic. Of course, you can get into trouble if a noisy bar or club has squeezed through otherwise sensible zoning laws (as Mariela described earlier). Good design like trees, wide sidewalks, bike lanes, and public art tend to soothe residents and sedate the through-traffic. We all know that a multilane speedway boulevard is a recipe for vehicular abuse and almost guarantees more light, noise, and air pollution. The community that lives on such streets often lacks organizing power to fight back because they have nowhere to congregate and share grievances. Designing for better public life actually empowers the neighborhood to solve local nuisance problems on their own.

Are you interested in decreasing the nuisances in your city? Learn no-nuisance design from State of Place. Not only will we help you identify and remove everyday nuisances caused by all the common mistakes that cities and developers make, we'll quantify - AND maximize - the ROI of doing so. Give your residents some relief!