It’s six o’clock on a Sunday morning, and a car alarm in my Cuenca neighborhood goes off with its intentionally horrible, piercing, high-pitched wail. I groan at the indignity of having my sleep be shattered by this rude interruption. Just as quickly though, I force my mind into blocking out the noise as much as possible, shifting the perception of it from being an intrusive interruption to a background ambient noise. With a kind of resignation, I try to wait it out hoping that the owner of the car would find it in his heart to go out and shut off the alarm as soon as possible.
Noise pollution is a nuisance factor in most urban settings. In the context of the hard surface of concrete walls and canyons created by tall buildings that echo and amplify noise, the grind of machinary and automotives, restaurants and bars, construction sites, and heating and cooling systems take their toll. It takes a human toll in terms of stress and public well being. Managing noise pollution requires legal codes and enforcement, as is the case in most developed countries. Municipal departments send out code enforcement officers who often need to intervene to remind businesses of their responsibility to restrict piercing noises from delivery trucks and heavy construction machinery to daylight hours. They also intervene—along with police—in noise generated by residents from parties or dogs.
Laissez-faire Regulation and Enforcement
In Cuenca, the municipality does have noise regulation codes but enforcement is virtually non-existent. In this lax laissez-faire approach to urban noise, the general background din is extremely noticeable to anyone who is accustomed to living a city where the population adheres to noise codes.
Car Alarms: The Siren Song of Cuenca
The noises in my neighborhood typically start around 6:00 a.m. when people start to take their kids to the early shift at school (schools here are broken into a shift system with young kids starting early while older kids stay past dark). Most cars, even the most plain, nondescript conveyance with four wheels are fitted with extremely loud car alarms as a prophylaxis for theft. Car alarms start out blaring as people fumble with keys. Even opening the car sets off a mini-alarm.
Then, around 7:00 a.m., the trucks selling propane gas cylinders start peddling their tanks around the streets, and they keep it up all day until dark. Their trucks circulate slowly around the neighborhoods, announcing themselves so that house-keepers can open their gates and flag them down. The jingle is broadcast from the truck, similar to an ice-cream truck. As a constant background noise to living in the city, the jingle has now thoroughly pierced my consciousness, and I alternate between finding it comforting and finding it utterly distasteful.
Between the car alarms and gas cylinder trucks are street vendors using noise to vie for your attention. Trucks bringing fish, chicken, brooms, or fruits ply the streets hawking their wares for door-to-door sales. It isn’t so bad when it’s a sing song voice (but I do worry about their vocal chords doing this all day!) but it’s particularly annoying when they have some raspy-voiced dude in a truck broadcasting a repeated message on a crackling, old public announcement system. It is impossible to concentrate on much of anything between the blasts of static and intensely-irritating repeated refrain extolling the best fish in Cuenca.
Taxi drivers are among the other worst offenders. Lacking a system of text or phone notification by taxi call centers, drivers announce their arrival at your door with a series of blows to their taxi horns. This is de rigeur behavior, no matter if your taxi arrives at 2:00 a.m. or 5:00 a.m. It’s not uncommon to be awoken by cabs honking their horns. As I sit writing, some neighborhood car is honking their horn repeatedly, likely to hurry up whoever they are trying to pick up.
Cuenca is blessed with plenty of canine sources of noise. Street dogs are generally intelligent enough to know to leave most humans well alone. However, many Cuenca residents keep two to three dogs in their garage spaces or patios, and the domestic dogs are often the ones barking up a storm. One dog on a street can set off a cacophonic chorus of sorts that echoes up and down the blocks. It can be set off by any disturbance on the street at any hour. A real welcome sound from your neighbors.
When I mentioned how objectionable Cuenca’s noise pollution can be to a Cuencano friend, he smirked a bit and acted as if I was a cranky, persnickety person. But most people I have discussed this with are of one mind, that the habit and persistence of noise is bothersome.
I worked for many years in a U.S. county government Department of Environmental Protection, with a cadre of environmental code enforcement officers who frequently dealt with noise pollution. I know it takes constant herding and maintenance to ensure that people in an urban context living in proximity to each other, conform to standards and norms that allow for harmonious living. People are (ideally) raised to respect others—hence admonished not to leave their litter in common spaces, not to damage other’s property and not to encroach on others’ boundaries. We build physical forms of settlements to give each other space and allowance for personal well-being (such as houses with fences), but we depend on people to maintain a healthy environment in our shared spaces. We all suffer if people litter and desecrate our common spaces: our streets, our libraries, our parks and so forth.
The Commons and Happiness
It seems to me, the happiest societies are those in which the commons are well-maintained, through a system of personal virtues and personal ethics cultivated from a young age through an education system, as well as through a system of well-enforced limits and policing. When people are aware that generating noise disturbs others and therefore they endeavor to limit their own noise, it makes for an overall more amenable and relaxed atmosphere. You self-police so as not to disturb your neighbor. You clean up if you make a mess to avoid inconveniencing others. In these societies, for the most part, the shared environment is maintained by everyone as if it were their own. In Japan, Singapore, Denmark, Germany and even in parts of the United States, the system of obligations to the commons is strong as a personal ethic, and reinforced by social norms and enforced laws.
An Ethic of Regard for Others
It is fundamental to being human that we are social beings, with a system of obligations and benefits. We benefit from each other but it behooves each person to be constantly aware that their behavior impacts other people. Selfishness and self-centeredness creates strife, because it impinges on the well being and peace of others.
As I write this sitting in the relatively quiet garden of my friend whose house is in a cul-de-sac and fronts one of Cuenca’s four rivers, a vendor drives down the road tooting his horn to sell some food from his motorbike. It makes me smile. This might be one of Cuenca’s quietest corners, but here, noise is a way to get your attention, not necessarily viewed as an inconvenience or a disturbance. The tolerance of some noise is not a bad thing. It does demonstrate a level of social flexibility and acceptance. The vendor does need to make a living. However, the problem is the cumulative impact of dozens of sources of noise, constantly, which goes completely unregulated.
The housekeeper walks in and I tell her about my blog on noise. She starts talking about the “barbaridad” (madness/atrocity) of Cuenca’s noise: the dogs down her street keep her up at night, the gas trucks are insufferable all day long, and the constant background stress wears her down.
As her experience reveals, Cuenca’s noise pollution frequently impinges past the bounds of personal ease. It disturbs people, sometimes in the middle of the night and often and frequently during the day. When you have a tightly packed numbers of people, and each asserts their own excessive noise, as if it were fine to disturb others, it betrays a level of disregard for an ethic that we have responsibilities and obligations for the common spaces we share as a society. Noise is a quality of life issue, and, due to the stress it generates, is a personal health issue as well. Many people suffer disturbed sleep as a result of the noise. Cuenca’s ETAPA Environmental Department offices would do well to address this issue with a level of commitment to action that is focused on public well being.