Noise Pollution and Geography

Mark Altaweel


Noise pollution has long been seen to be particularly acute in regions where transportation and urban development are most pronounced; the disciplines of urban and environmental geography have focused on this topic. Prior to recent periods, such as the last few decades, most monitoring of noise pollution has occurred through the public health services, such as clinics and hospitals reporting health problems indicated by patients.[1]

One of the earliest reports on noise pollution dates to 1890s from London, where people described the very high levels of noise encountered in the central London districts as that city had rapidly industrialized in the 19th century.[2] However, the study of noise pollution has not only been deficient in terms of documenting the levels of noise pollution in urban contexts, but how people react to noise pollution varies based on tolerance levels and how different people react and adapt to noise. A relatively early study documenting the levels in which people experienced noise pollution, including from a geographic perspective, focused on the city of Manchester, where people in the 1970s had indicated experience significant levels of disturbance or even stress from different urban noises.[3] The biggest health concern is that it has long-term psychological effects, where stress in particular can increase substantially due to long-term noise pollution exposure, which can contribute to a deterioration in physical health. Noise pollution is not only increasing due to increased urbanism, but the condensation of activities within cities, in places where crowding is more common, also contributes to noise pollution.[4]

Modern urban environments in Western states have undergone substantial change. On the one hand, cities are quieter in some places, as industry within cities has moved to new locations and noise from machinery and transportation have, subsequently, diminished. On the other hand, increased use of cars and greater traffic has increased noise pollution in many areas.[5] Today, studies are more focused on looking at spatial and temporal patterns of noise pollution, including measuring noise values, such as that set by the World Health Organization, in terms of what is acceptable levels of noise. As an example, a study in Karachi, Pakistan showed that this city routinely violated noise pollution guidelines, where sometimes the levels of noise reached levels that could cause permanent hearing damage.[6]

Spatial-temporal maps of Karachi, Pakistan road traffic noise (unit: dB): (a) weekday morning, (b) weekday afternoon, (c) weekday evening, (d) weekend morning, (e) weekend afternoon and (f) weekend evening. Source: Mehdi, Kim, Seong, & Arsalan, 2011.
Spatial-temporal maps of Karachi, Pakistan road traffic noise (unit: dB): (a) weekday morning, (b) weekday afternoon, (c) weekday evening, (d) weekend morning, (e) weekend afternoon and (f) weekend evening. Source: Mehdi, Kim, Seong, & Arsalan, 2011.

While some countries have taken the work on noise pollution seriously, where laws in the United Kingdom and Netherlands, for instance, limit activities such as overnight air transport or operation of heavy equipment, the United States was found generally deficient in its state and local laws in many areas in how urban places address noise pollution. In effect, the problem is not seen as too serious by policymakers.[7]

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While public health has dominated studies on noise pollution, the effects on wildlife are also substantial. For instance, some bird species that heavily depend on communicating with other birds through sound have had been driven from being able to effectively live in more urban settings.[8] For other animals, noise can also drive them away from areas where they could potentially live even with the presence of humans or urban contexts. Given recent greater awareness of noise pollution on public health, in the coming years we can expect further research that documents how noise contributes to urban problems.


[1] For more on monitoring noise pollution, see: Khopkar, S.M. (2004) Environmental pollution: monitoring and control. New Delhi, New Age Internat. Publ.

[2] For more on this early study and report on noise in London, see:  Peirce, J.J., Weiner, R.F., Vesilind, P.A. & Vesilind, P.A. (1998) Environmental pollution and control. [Online]. Boston, Mass., Butterworth-Heinemann, pg. 325.

[3] For more on this study in Manchester, see:  Christopher Wood (ed.) (1974) The Geography of pollution; a study of Greater Manchester. Studies in environmental pollution. Manchester, Manchester University Press.

[4] For a recent comprehensive review and assessment on noise pollution in urban settings and its effect on the environment, see:  Murphy, E. & King, E.A. (2014) Environmental noise pollution: noise mapping, public health, and policy. First edition. Amsterdam ; Boston, Elsevier.

[5] For a noise pollution study in Western cities, see:  Lawrence K. Wang, Norman C. Pereira, & Yung-Tse Hung (eds.) (2005) Advanced air and noise pollution control. Handbook of environmental engineering v. 2. Totowa, N.J, Humana Press.

[6] For more on this study in Karachi, see:  Mehdi, M.R., Kim, M., Seong, J.C. & Arsalan, M.H. (2011) Spatio-temporal patterns of road traffic noise pollution in Karachi, Pakistan. Environment International. [Online] 37 (1), 97–104.

[7] For more on this study, see:  Hammer, Monica S. and Fan, Yi and Swinburn, Tracy K. and Weber, Miram and Weinhold, Diana and Neitzel, Richard L. (2017) A comparison of environmental noise pollution policies in the United States, United Kingdom, and the Netherlands using a comprehensive environmental health framework. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management.

[8] For more on a study documenting the effects of noise on birds, see:  Francis, C.D., Ortega, C.P. & Cruz, A. (2009) Noise Pollution Changes Avian Communities and Species Interactions. Current Biology. [Online] 19 (16), 1415–1419.

Environmental noise pollution: noise mapping, public health, and policy
Authors: Enda Murphy, Eoin King
Elsevier, 2014, ISBN: 978-0124115958, 282 pp.

Environmental Pollution and Control
Authors: J. Jeffrey Peirce, P Aarne Vesilind, Ruth Weiner
Butterworth-Heinemann, 1997, ISBN: 978-0750698993, 392 pp.

The Geography of pollution; a study of Greater Manchester
Author: C. M. Wood
Manchester Univ Press, 1974, ISBN: 978-0719005640, 160 pp.

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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.