The Atlantic

The Struggle for the Urban Soundscape

The quiet of lockdown and the noise of protest restage the political conflicts of sonic life in the city.
Source: Erin Brethauer and Tim Hussin

Updated at 9:15 p.m. ET on July 21, 2020.

Videos by Erin Brethauer and Tim Hussin

I remember a night of insomnia a few weeks after the pandemic began. As I lay in bed early that March morning, my mind racing, the robins began to sing—a silver lining under a poor night’s rest. As the sun rose, I waited for the inevitable sounds of day: the car engines of people in my Washington, D.C. apartment building headed off to work, the clamor of landscapers with leaf blowers, the din of a construction crew’s nail guns, all drowning out the birds until the next daybreak.

But to my surprise, the day’s usual noise never arrived. The robins continued to sing, joined by a choir of white-throated sparrows, cardinals, and Carolina wrens. Walking my dog, I saw why. The construction site was abandoned, all the equipment gone. The landscapers who descend every Wednesday were nowhere to be found either. Our parking lot, usually empty by 8 a.m., was full of cars. Until their afternoon lull, when they nap or seek shelter until dusk, the birds sang on.

Others noticed this newfound quietude too. Friends online asked if the world had gotten quieter. My urban-birding mailing list was abuzz over the quality of new recordings. Scientists soon confirmed the phenomenon. First, Dutch seismologists that the lack environmental-noise studies from around the world, demonstrating that cities had in fact gotten much, much quieter during the pandemic.

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