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Challenging Noise Levels in Urban Environments

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Noise levels can be challenging in urban environments and a source of sensory overload. ‘Unwanted noise’ such as traffic, sirens, even conversation can be deafening at times. Positive or negative, the sounds in our surrounding environments influence our lives. Human beings have a threshold of sound ranging from 0 decibels to 140 dB, at which point we generally experience some level of associated pain and at 165 dB there can be permanent damage to the ear canal. In a report released by the EPA in 1974, the ideal noise level for us is around 55 dB outdoors and 45 dB indoors before there is “activity interference and annoyance”. Levels should also not exceed more than 70 dB for a 24-hour period to prevent hearing loss or damage over one’s lifetime. For a bit of perspective to how this compares to real-world noises; a New York Subway was recorded ranging from 106-112 dB whereas the level of a ‘babbling brook’ is about 20 dB. While most would probably consider a ‘babbling brook’ a positive sound, many urban noises can have unwanted results. Sometimes the effect of this unwanted noise is small, such as the inability to hear a conversation, other times it takes a greater toll on one’s health and well-being, like the loss of sleep, change of mood or a trigger for PTSD. This disruption and exposure to negative sounds can lead to a need for restoration.

The sound of water has a positive effect on the human brain and body. Human life begins in our mother’s womb listening to ‘swooshing’ sounds similar to the sound of the ocean. As if cosmically related somehow, the frequency and rhythm of water are like that of the human breath. Every year people flock to the seaside, some just to hear the sound of the waves crashing on the land. For me, it’s the sound of the rain hitting a river or lake, the trickling of the water from the paddle across the water, and sometimes that muffled ‘swooshing’ silence you get as your ears dip below the surface of the water. It’s relaxing and calming, accompanied by a sense of “weightlessness” that surpasses the literal gravity of my actual being. Activity in the medial prefrontal cortex is ignited by the sound of water, the part of the brain that is strongly correlated with creativity, emotions, self-image, and insight. The emotions described that arise when hearing, or being close to water, are similar to those felt when listening to music, such as “joy, sadness, tension, wonder, peacefulness, power, nostalgia, transcendence”.

The use of water features in urban environments can be used to draw people in and provide a moment of restoration. Parks with water elements tend to be flocked with people, especially in the summertime. Fountains can become landmarks or points of interest and sometimes the watering hole for local and passing birds and other wildlife. In Rome and Venice, Italy the public drinking fountains are easy to miss disguised as works of art. Water flows consistently from decorative fountains, providing a local or visitors with a chance to refill a water bottle and a moment of escape and refreshment. Even pocket parks in urban environments with rushing or falling water, like Paley Park in New York City, have the capacity to drown out the surrounding city noises allowing the visitor a moment of escape and relaxation. If the water element is integrated with stormwater management, it can serve both aesthetics and function. Proximity to a river has the added benefits of nature and a naturalized setting, however, noises from a slow-moving river such as the Ohio, are difficult to hear from a distance. Access to the edge of the river, therefore, is necessary for sound benefits from the river.

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Challenging Noise Levels In Urban Environments. (2019, July 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 25, 2022, from
“Challenging Noise Levels In Urban Environments.” GradesFixer, 10 Jul. 2019,
Challenging Noise Levels In Urban Environments. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 25 Jun. 2022].
Challenging Noise Levels In Urban Environments [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2019 Jul 10 [cited 2022 Jun 25]. Available from:
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