Urban Poverty Has A Sound–And It’s Loud

A new map from the Department of Transportation reveals the relationship between noise pollution and poverty.

Turns out the sound of urban poverty is the roar of airplane engines and car horns.


The Department of Transportation recently released a heat map that charts road and aviation noise in the United States. While it shows us where the unrelenting din of traffic and airplanes is most unbearable, it also reveals where sound is an environmental justice issue. Some of the loudest urban neighborhoods are also the poorest.

The DOT compiled data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Federal Highway Administration to show the average 24-hour noise exposure levels in decibels, which range from less than 50 decibels (the sound a refrigerator motor makes) to over 90 (a garbage disposal is about 80 decibels). The white and yellow areas are the quietest and the deep red and blue are the loudest.

[Screenshot: United States Department of Transportation]
Take Beacon Hill, Seattle, one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods, which is blanketed in orange and magenta on the map. The EPA recently awarded a $120,000 environmental justice grant to an organization working in the neighborhood and specifically cited noise pollution, a byproduct of highways in close proximity, as a main concern. Atlanta, a city whose north side has generally received more investment over the years, is louder on its southern side. Los Angeles, a city with one of the worst poverty rates in the nation, is red across the neighborhoods of Westmont, Inglewood, and Lennox–all of which have poverty rates hovering around 30%.

Noise and poverty is a chicken-and-egg situation that’s related to the trajectory of development and population growth in a city. Loud areas, typically near airports and major arterials, tend to have lower real estate values, and are often the only neighborhoods low-income people can afford. The construction of highways has historically destabilized healthy neighborhoods. A 2015 study of socioeconomics and environmental noise exposure in Montreal found that neighborhoods where residents spent more than 30% of their annual income on housing are also the loudest. However, a 2011 study of social inequality and noise in Paris found that the more advantaged neighborhoods were also the loudest, a by-product of the suburbanization of poverty in the city.

But the dynamics may change over time, and the relationship between noise and income may fluctuate in some areas. As a 2012 CityLab story points out, some of the noisiest areas are also rapidly gentrifying, like industrial neighborhoods–typically near trail tracks and highways–that are turning into high-end residential neighborhoods.

The DOT released the map to help policy makers prioritize noise-abatement investment in transportation. Loud cities aren’t just a nuisance, they’re also a public health problem, since noise exposure has been linked to cardiovascular problems, hypertension, and sleep disorders. Perhaps this map will add a sense of urgency to this environmental justice problem.


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.