Noise pollution and city planning – why local government and industry have a collective responsibility when building cities of tomorrow: a view from Marloes Meer, Head of Sector and Market Intelligence at Saint-Gobain

Marloes Meer, Head of Sector and Market Intelligence at Saint-Gobain

Densification, urbanisation, construction, redevelopment. In an environment with a strong demand for urban housing, we’re hearing those words more and more often, and frequently in context of official city planning, where various metropolitans have committed to rapidly increasing the availability of housing to meet demand.

The UN predicts that by 2050, two-thirds of people will live in cities. South Africa is following the global trend of rapid urbanisation: 63% of South Africans are already living in urban areas and the statistics will rise to 71% by 2030. By 2050, eight in 10 people will be living in urban areas.

It’s not a phenomenon unique to Johannesburg, Cape Town or any other large city and highlights an issue facing cities across the globe: how do you deal with the noise of densification?

As cities grow, it becomes harder for residents to cope with the noise (which can lead to or exacerbate health issues). Added to that, there is increasing importance on new energy-efficient building methods and a drive for offices and homes to be highly insulated and more airtight to conserve heat in winter, which may make them too warm in summer. The concurrent growth of urbanisation and densification and a focus on environmental sustainability, which is fast gaining traction, places greater emphasis on new energy-efficient building methods and the need for designers and developers to refocus their efforts to build effectively and efficiently.

At Saint-Gobain we know that the built environment has a huge impact on people’s health and wellbeing and on the environment.  Poor acoustics can have a direct influence on health and behaviour. Epidemiological studies have shown, for instance, that the risk of heart attack for those living close to very frequently used streets is around 20% higher than for residents of quieter streets, and that the risk of obesity increases with the proximity of an airport¹.

When we are acoustically comfortable, we are more productive, happier and experience fewer health issues. Research has shown that well-designed sound environments in offices or schools help to improve concentration and enable better communication. Learning is more effective and less tiring when students can comfortably hear and understand their teacher.  A French study indicated that noise can hurt academic scores: for every 10-decibel point increase in noise, the language and maths skills of students decreased by 5.5 points. In hospitals, reducing the stress and sleeplessness created by high noise levels helps patients recover faster and facilitates the work performance of the staff. In our homes, protection from noise contributes to a sense of security and privacy.

Johannesburg’s skyline is changing as a result of demand for housing, a greater focus on densification to meet that demand, the conversion of old commercial spaces into residential areas and the development of high-rise apartment buildings.  Try as we might, we cannot get away from every-day inner-city noises, and residents often have no choice but to contend with disturbances from traffic, sirens and construction, noisy neighbours, and background noise from appliances, ventilation systems or electronic equipment.  As homes and offices cluster tighter together, what can developers do to reduce noise and contribute to improved wellbeing?

Urban expansion creates challenges for policy makers in terms of managing noise pollution. In an ideal world, cities would take measures to prevent noise pollution before it becomes excessive instead of waiting until their citizens’ health is already at risk. One solution is to legislate and issue fines to businesses and individuals who violate noise ordinances. While this may discourage some from making excessive noise, others—especially large industries —might simply consider the fines to be a part of the cost of doing business and do nothing to change their practices. It also doesn’t address the point of minimising noise pollution during construction where the traditional approach has been to build thicker walls – a method that brings both cost and environmental issues.

We believe that jointly, our industry, comprising manufacturers, architects, contractors, developers and building/home owners have a common responsibility to develop and utilise alternative construction or renovation solutions which minimize the impact noise on the interior environment.

If the cities of tomorrow are to succeed, industry and policy makers need to collaborate and deploy efforts to design and implement better measures to mitigate noise pollution in more and more densely populated cities.


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