Finding Silence in the City

This post was written by Wiley H Oct 24, 2018 in Health & Wellness, Mental Health, Outdoors

Increase your well-being while being kind to your ears.

When was the last time you enjoyed true silence? No traffic noise, no industrial sounds, no TV, no music, no talking – just the sound of your own thoughts? If you live in an urban area, chances are you find it difficult to escape constant noise. 

There are good and bad sounds. In general, sounds of nature (birdsong, wind and waves) are good because human beings evolved with them. Such sounds are in harmony with our bodies. For instance, the sound of rolling waves approximates human breathing at rest and is therefore very relaxing to our nervous system.
Bad sounds are often man-made (machines, loud music, yelling) and create tension in our bodies over time. If such sounds are loud and persistent, they become noise pollution. We live in a noisy environment, especially in the city, where the sounds of transportation (cars, trains, planes), industry (generators, fans, construction activities) and households (TV, vacuum cleaner, leaf blower, etc.) seem inescapable. Although we are used to these everyday sounds, studies show they have a negative impact on our health. Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate the effects noise pollution.
Adverse effects of noise pollution
"All of our physical rhythms are being affected by sound outside us all the time. "
                                                                                     – Julian Treasure, Sound Consultant
When we are exposed to constant or high levels of noise, we experience stress, negative emotional responses and a huge drop in productivity. Studies have shown that productivity drops by 66% in open plan offices. We are not capable of listening to multiple inputs at once, so when an environment is noisy we have to use extra effort to filter out unwanted sounds. As a result, concentration and retention suffer. 
Chronic exposure to loud environments can lead to health issues such as hearing loss (which in turn can lead to social withdrawal and isolation), hypertension, poor sleep and fatigue. Research shows that noise pollution impacts us in four major ways:
  1. Physiological (stress hormone secretion, increased heart rate and breathing)
  2. Psychological (anxiety, agitation, depression)
  3. Cognitive (decreased productivity and poor decision-making)
  4. Behavioural (aggressive behaviour, e.g. people tend to speed when driving with loud music on that has a heavy, fast beat)
Levels of noise
The following table from Healthlink BC provides noise levels common to our urban environment. As loudness increases, the amount of time you can hear the sound before damage occurs decreases. 
NOISE Average Decibals (dB)
Leaves rustling, soft music, whisper 30
Average home noise 40
Normal conversation, background music 60
Office noise, inside car at 60 mph 70
Vacuum cleaner, average radio 75
NOTE:  Sounds above 85 dB are harmful  
Heavy traffic, window air conditioner, noisy restaurant, power lawn mower 80-89
Subway, shouted conversation 90-95
Boom box, ATV, motorcycle 96-100
School dance 101-105
Chainsaw, leaf blower, snowmobile 106-115
Sports crowd, rock concert, loud symphony 120-129
Stock car races 130
Gun shot, siren at 100 feet 140
How to reclaim a healthy soundscape
We have eyelids to shut out the light, but we have no earlids to shut out sound. Our ears work even as we sleep, so it’s very important to protect our ears if we want to preserve our hearing and overall health.
Here are some suggestions:
  1. Protect your ears against constant noise – use earplugs or noise-cancelling earphones (better the quality, lower the volume required). In noisy offices, try headphones with soothing or natural sounds to dampen the noise and keep the volume at a recommended level. 
  2. Plug your ears with your fingers against sudden, harmful noise – e.g. jackhammer, emergency sirens, smoke detectors.
  3. Seek out good sounds – natural sounds are good for us (wind, water, birds). Take a walk by the ocean or amble through the forest. According to sound experts, 5 minutes of birdsong a day is excellent for mental health.
  4. Reset your ears – be intentional about being quiet for some time every day (see previous blog on Meditation). Just 3 minutes a day of silence (or quiet) is a great exercise to recalibrate your ears so that you can hear the quiet again.
  5. Design nice soundscapes – install good windows and soundproofing in your home.
  6. Sound healing – listen to calming music or try singing. 
  7. Speak up! against unpleasant noises.

Wiley H.

Wiley is a long-time North Vancouver resident. She works as a technical writer and is the current newsletter editor for the North Shore Writers’ Association. She spends her free time feeding her twin passions of creative writing and hiking. She recently discovered a potential third passion - the pottery studio at the Delbrook Community Recreation Centre.


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