Public Comment

Commentary: Noise + Traffic = Flight: Saving Urban Neighborhoods

By Joanne Kowalski
Friday June 23, 2006

“Redevelopment should be pursued primarily for the benefit of the community as a whole and of the people who live in the ... area; not for the redeveloper or his eventual tenants.” Herbert J. Gans, The Urban Villagers, 1962. 


Whenever I hear about large infill (re)developments / high density traffic corridors and their purported purpose of reducing urban sprawl by re-attracting people into the urban core, I wonder what evidence there is that this strategy will work. Over my years as a Flatlands resident, I’ve known many middle-income people including administrators (from both U.C. and the city), teachers, musicians, mechanics, chefs, firefighters, artists, carpenters, gardeners, health care workers and even doctors and lawyers who have moved from Berkeley to the suburbs and beyond. While affordability was often a consideration, they didn’t leave simply because of price but because the ‘city’ (Berkeley/Oakland/S.F.) did not provide the kind of housing they wanted at a price they could afford. They wanted, for instance, a larger house (or simply a house instead of an apartment/condo) where they could raise their kids. A quieter, less hectic, safer, friendlier area with less traffic and less noise. A cleaner, less polluted environment (for some their health depended on it.) More space to have a studio or workshop, to house an extended family, grow food, keep animals, store a boat, play music —in short, a more comfortable place where they could do the kinds of things that they enjoyed.  

Such anecdotal accounts are mirrored by statistical findings. Data from the US Census Bureau’s National Housing Survey shows a consistency over the years for the reasons people give for wanting to move from their neighborhoods. These are (in the order of frequency of reporting):  

—Noise (both street and aircraft) 

—Heavy traffic 

—Deteriorating infrastructures (e.g. streets, schools, lighting) 


—Commercial and industrial development 


—Deteriorating housing 

—Noxious odors 

—Abandoned buildings 

Intuitively, this list makes sense as each of the factors can negatively impact people’s health and well-being. For example, noise (as anyone familiar with psychological torture techniques can tell you) has long been recognized as having a debilitating effect on the human organism. Repeated exposure to loud noise can cause hearing loss. Noise is also a general biological stressor that contributes to stress related conditions like high blood pressure, coronary disease, ulcers, migraine (and other) headaches and a general lowering of the immune system. It is also associated with irritability, insomnia, fatigue, digestive disorders and neuroticism. On a social level, noise interferes with communication, disturbs normal domestic and educational activities, creates safety hazards and is a source of extreme annoyance. And workers exposed to high levels of noise have a significantly greater rate of accidents, diagnosed medical problems and absenteeism. It is understandable, therefore, that people would want to move away from noise.  

Taken as whole, the list is evocative of a pattern in urban areas across the US (like Cleveland, Buffalo, Toledo, Oakland, Chicago and Detroit) where vast urban wastelands inhabited by the very poor take up much of the central core while new massive institutional/corporate complexes along with housing for the well-to-do are constructed along the periphery, destroying neighborhoods and pushing settled residents into the ever outwarding spiral of urban sprawl.  

The list also has predictive value. One could anticipate, for instance, that a high density housing development built on a relatively small triangle of land bordered by three major arteries and above a transit station would be high on the factors of noise, heavy traffic and noxious odors. One could expect, therefore, that no matter the original intent, this housing would become transitional because residents would find it uncomfortable to live in for long periods of time. Similarly, construction of an athletic field with high intensity lights and evening practices/games across from a residential neighborhood would increase noise, traffic congestion and litter. This, in turn, would disturb normal domestic activity, motivate stabler, longer term residents to relocate, the neighborhood to become more transitory and crime to increase.  

Nor should we ignore the fact that reconstruction itself can have an impact on the livability of an area. It is noisy. It creates noxious fumes and odors. Blocked roads direct cars onto nearby streets thereby increasing traffic congestion. Nearby business suffer as street parking is eliminated during construction, foot traffic declines and old customers seek pleasanter and easier to get to places to shop. For example, the construction of a high rise hotel complex and a 9 story condo development within a block of each other in a relatively small, narrow streeted, suburban downtown that will take years (if not decades) to complete is certain to have a negative impact on nearby businesses, offices and residents. If such construction is necessary, help for the afflicted in the form of rental subsidies during construction, liquidation funds for small store owners and relocation assistance should be considered as a cost of the redevelopment and appropriately budgeted for.  

In order to reduce sprawl and re-attract people to the inner city we might better concentrate on creating a more livable environment by reducing noise and traffic, improving infrastructures like streets, schools, lighting, transportation, libraries, sewers, health services and parks, reduce pollution, repair deteriorating housing and increase public safety. We should strive to retain residents already in the city by working with neighborhoods to determine what they need and want. And we should encourage economic opportunities for all by promoting locally owned start-ups and small businesses including street vendors, farmers’’ markets, home offices and studios, flea markets, artisans, street musicians and solo practitioners. Redevelopment should be carefully done and over scale reconstruction limited to areas already abandoned. In short, if we truly want people to remain in or return to the cities, we should create a quieter, healthier, saner, more equitable place to live.  


Joanne Kowalski is a Berkeley resident.