The Struggle for the Urban Soundscape

Videos by Erin Brethauer and Tim Hussin
I remember a night of insomnia a few weeks after the pandemic began. As I lay in bed early that March morning, my mind racing, the robins began to sing—a silver lining under a poor night’s rest. As the sun rose, I waited for the inevitable sounds of day: the car engines of people in my Washington, D.C. apartment building headed off to work, the clamor of landscapers with leaf blowers, the din of a construction crew’s nail guns, all drowning out the birds until the next daybreak.
But to my surprise, the day’s usual noise never arrived. The robins continued to sing, joined by a choir of white-throated sparrows, cardinals, and Carolina wrens. Walking my dog, I saw why. The construction site was abandoned, all the equipment gone. The landscapers who descend every Wednesday were nowhere to be found either. Our parking lot, usually empty by 8 a.m., was full of cars. Until their afternoon lull, when they nap or seek shelter until dusk, the birds sang on.
Others noticed this newfound quietude too. Friends online asked if the world had gotten quieter. My urban-birding mailing list was abuzz over the quality of new recordings. Scientists soon confirmed the phenomenon. First, Dutch seismologists showed that the lack of travel during lockdown had caused Earth’s surface to vibrate less. Later, The New York Times aggregated environmental-noise studies from around the world, demonstrating that cities had in fact gotten much, much quieter during the pandemic.
Using my training in acoustics, I took my own, rudimentary measurements and compared them with ones I had taken while walking around my neighborhood when apartment hunting a year ago. I noticed an average reduction of six decibels. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a staggering change to the soundscape—roughly the difference between a city street at rush hour and 2 a.m. Under any other circumstances, such a quick and dramatic reduction in noise levels is unthinkable. Juan Pablo Bello, a noise researcher at NYU, captured the disturbing tension between this new silence and the frightening social conditions responsible for it: “It’s not a healthy sound in my mind. Even though I’ve been hoping for quiet in many ways for all these years thinking about noise, being obsessed with noise—somehow this is not quite what I was hoping for.”
[ Read: Why everything is getting louder ]
Months after the morning the robins sang, I experienced a different but equally powerful sonic experience. During the first week of Black Lives Matter protests in June, my husband and I traveled to the White House to join a march. As curfew loomed, cops prepared to round up straggling protesters. Chaos had erupted in front of the White House gates—people shouting and rushing from block to block, flares burning out in the middle of the street, police in riot shields, batons in hand, grabbing protesters, the smell of lingering...