MUCH ADO ABOUT NOISE
Children playing. Cars revving. Dogs barking. At what point do everyday neighbourhood noises become an issue? Often, as records of the city’s noise complaints show, it’s when construction starts up on your street
In an occasional series, the Star delves into 311 data to see what our concerns say about the city. In the second instalment, we look at one of the biggest reasons why people pick up the phone to dial 311: the noise that’s keeping us up at night.
Lined by small lots with neat hedges, the tiny residential street of East Haven Drive in southwest Scarborough is almost deserted on a recent chilly Wednesday.
Other than the sound of children playing at a nearby school and the odd rev of a car engine on Kingston Road, the most noise comes from the steady beeping of a truck backing up at a nearby condo under construction.
This is the heart of the noisiest neighbourhood in Toronto . . . at least it is according to noise complaints filed with 311, the city’s hotline for non-emergency matters.
The western chunk of the old Scarborough Southwest ward, home to East Haven Drive, has the most 311 noise service requests so far this year of any area of the city at 360. And there have been 13 noise complaints on the street since 2016, according to the city’s website.
The Star went in search of the incredible racket that must be coming from this ordinary residential area, and found … not that much.
Construction has been “the big one” when it comes to noise issues for the past nine months or so, says Duncan MacDonald, who has lived in the neighbourhood for 21 years.
But noise from trucks and other equipment “wasn’t overpowering or anything,” he said. “It’s not quite the end of the world.”
An unscientific snapshot of the noise levels there found it was about as loud as High Park.
Some residents in the same postal code area of Southwest Scarborough found the sound of children laughing intolerable in 2016. City staff were “inundated” with complaints about a toddler soccer team practising in Lynndale Parkette, the Star reported at the time. The program was eventually moved to a nearby public school.
“It kind of made our neighbourhood look a little bad that we would complain about little 4- and 5-year-olds kicking around a soccer ball,” said Alan Burke, president of the East Beach Community Association.
He suspects the spike in complaints has to do with new midrise condos in the past couple of years along Kingston Road, as residents are not as used to construction as downtowners. But he said there have also been some issues with “boisterous” youths drinking in parks during the summer.
“I know also, in the Beach, people complain more than average,” he added with a laugh.
Whether the sliver of southwest Scarborough deserves the title of loudest neighbourhood, or people there just like to grumble, it’s clear that urban noise is a problem with high stakes for our health.
It’s even been linked to heart issues and is something experts and concerned citizens are sounding the alarm about, as the city conducts a review into the noise bylaw.
Noise complaints are one of the biggest categories of city 311 service requests, taking the sixth spot in 2018 so far, just behind property standards, out of almost 650 categories.
Service requests related to noise in the city as a whole are on the rise, as are total 311 requests, from 5,079 in 2013 to 8,515 so far in 2018, according to data provided to the Star by 311 Toronto and open data on the city’s website.
The current noise bylaw limits construction to Monday to Friday 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. But construction projects can apply for noise exemptions to do work outside those periods.
A 2015 city staff report on the noise bylaw noted that the number of those requests granted is growing, from 334 in 2011 to 567 in 2015. The largest numbers of noise complaints in 2015 were about construction (3,611), followed by loud music (2,535), animal noise (2,267) and mechanical noise (819).
Cathie Macdonald, a former city planner who’s part of the Toronto Noise Coalition advocating for a stricter city noise complaints bylaw, understands the city is growing and becoming a 24-hour global destination.
“You also have to respect that people want to sleep,” she said.
Residents “are getting very frustrated” with noise coming from clubs in the entertainment district, the near constant sounds of construction and even the sound of leaf blowers.
“There are some neighbourhoods where there seems to be a fleet of leaf blowers about, when you can’t have a conversation in your house because it’s so loud,” she said.
City staff are expected to come back with proposed recommendations on the noise bylaw in the second quarter of 2019.
The report identified several criticisms of the current bylaw from a round of public consultation, including that too many noise exemptions are being granted, and penalties are not deterring noise offenders.
While noise is “happening in big cities everywhere,” other places, such as New York City, are making quiet more of a priority, said the noise coalition’s Macdonald. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tightened that city’s noise code in 2007, regulating the noise of everything from ice-cream trucks to nightclubs, the New York Times reported that year. Despite this new regime, noise complaints are still the biggest category of 311 service (New York uses the same phone number requests since 2010, according to the city’s open data.
But contractors are required to make and post “noise-mitigation plans” at construction sites in the city that never sleeps to let neighbours know how the contractors will reduce the noise from pounding jackhammers and screeching saws.
Back on East Haven Drive, where the city says the most common type of 311 noise complaints are about construction, that’s something that might help, said MacDonald. The new condo has caused some tensions in the neighbourhood, he said, as the area gets denser along the major thoroughfare of Kingston Rd.
“Certainly, if you’re doing construction or intensification, you should be conscious of that and maybe work with the councillor, things like that,” he said.
“There’s always going to be a certain amount of construction noise, OK, well, how do you mitigate that?”
Robert Freedman, general counsel for VHL Developments, the builder of Haven on the Bluffs, said in an email that the company has had “no issues” with noise, other than a bylaw notice about 16 months ago it “immediately complied with” about when it started work.
He added any noise from the project is no different from that of “countless condo and other development and public works projects spanning all across the city.”
The noise from those countless condos, as well as from traffic, music and other urban sources, can have serious health effects, says Tor Oiamo, an assistant professor in the department of geography and environmental studies at Ryerson University.
Oiamo co-wrote a report with Toronto Public Health on noise in the city in 2017 that notes that it is louder in the city than the level the World Health Organization recommends.
The public agency conducted a noise-monitoring study in Toronto in 2016 and found the average 24-hour equivalent noise levels were 62.9 dBA (measured in units of ‘Aweighted’ decibels, an expression of the relative loudness of sounds in air as perceived by the human ear), well above the WHO guidelines of 55 dBA out- doors in daytime and 40 dBA during the night.
All that racket is not just a threat to hearing; Oiamo said chronic exposure to high noise levels has been linked to cardiovascular health effects, ranging from high blood pressure to heart attacks, particularly in people already vulnerable.
“The way we do the science isn’t really like loud noise gives you a heart attack … it increases the risk. It can happen while you’re sleeping; you don’t even need to, necessarily, wake up.”
Noise can also impact sleep, mental health and is linked to increased risk of diabetes. Oiamo said he suspects “there’s probably a relationship between increase in construction activity” and the increase in 311 noise complaints.
While complaints about construction are common, on average, most of the noise (nearly 60 per cent according to the 2017 Toronto Public Health Report) comes from traffic.
For Thomas Kyrgios, even though southwest Scarborough isn’t exactly Yonge and Dundas Square, that traffic is still much louder than what he’s used to.
He lives just north of Kingston Road, near East Haven Drive. Arriving five months ago from the sun-spackled village of Zoodohos in northwest Greece, where the loudest thing is “the dogs,” he’s not used to it.
He blames “the cars and motorcycles.” Making a revving engine motion with his hands, he said it’s worse in the summer with tourists heading to the nearby Scarborough Bluffs.
“The noise,” he said, waiting for the 12A Kingston Rd. bus as a truck rumbled by, is “too much.”