We need to build a city without noise

COVID sucks. And with COVID comes lockdown. Lockdown sucks too, except for one thing: how it sounds. I love the sound of lockdown. The silence overpowers everything. It absorbs every noise and exacerbates those of life: birds, people talking, walking, laughing, the waves or the wind. These sounds beautify everything: the light, the colours, the smells. These sounds make you see more, see better. You notice these details, these leaves waving in the wind, the light glowing seemingly through a canopy, and how pure this child laugh can be. You become more aware and more grounded.

The noise of engines is gone and true sounds emerge. And then lockdown ends, and life as we know it resumes. I didn’t say “normal life”, I said “life as we know it”: it’s important. This makes me wonder: Is this the best we can do? And if we can do better, what’s preventing us from actually doing it?

There is a true sense of grief when lockdown eases for the loss of this rare, forgotten beauty that is a world without engine noise. And Wellington is full of these: the airport first and foremost, the ferries and the tankers, construction work, cars, the infamous buses from GWRC which managed to do worse when they ditched trolley buses in 2017, gardening tools (the ones with a screaming 2 strokes), these motorbikes tuned to make more noise, jetskis and other small aircraft.

Yes, Wellington for all that’s great about it, is a noisy city, noisier than other similarly sized cities, by many accounts. Some of it is due to its topography and its location on the map of New Zealand. But consider this too: when you remove transport for the masses (and I include private cars in there), there is still a lot of noise. This is when you realise that maybe half of the noise your are subjected to actually comes from a minority. Yes, this sucks too.

I know, I have already written about noise. But why, I wonder, if peace in lockdown is something that so many people notice and love, don’t we throw all our energy at trying to cement it? Think about the benefits: by tackling noise, we would effectively also tackle our emissions, all the while improving drastically our collective well-being. Some Scandinavian countries have had a serious go at it: not that I would recommend to fly in the COVID and climate change era, but that Stockholm airport is impressive for its peace. Yes, the airport!

But where is our salvation? Can’t you stop complaining and offer some solutions, I hear you say? Well, the algorithm to solve this puzzle is easy: until we have electrified everything we’re doing, the way our society works will continue to remain noisy. We should hop out of our cars or dispose of it for an EV, a bike, or an electric bus (looking at you GWRC). We can also replace this old lawnmower with a battery powered one (yes, they are absolutely capable nowadays). We’d do it for ourselves and for our neighbours. And we can also demand from our elected members, local and central, to seriously cap our biggest noise emitters, the airport and centreport. These bad boys have had a free lunch for too long and until they’re told off, nothing will change.

COVID sucks, and so does lockdown. As we move into level 2, we need to build on the single positive side effect of lockdown to make it less dreadful: the taste and the promise of a world more beautiful, more harmonious, delivered from noise, for nature and for ourselves.