Volume of a World Class City

This morning, I did an informal study with the members of my household to find out what they considered the most troublesome noise they face on a daily basis. My first subject – male, eleven years old – tore off his headphones, and replied, “huh?”  As expected, I got the same response from his two siblings. Survey complete.

Unfortunately, not all Torontonians have the habit of tuning out their surroundings like my three sons do (probably a good thing). If they did we wouldn’t be as burdened with the increasing volume that comes with maintaining and building our world class city. That is our current challenge and it’s not dissimilar to what other Canadian cities are experiencing, such as Montreal and Vancouver.

Nothing stays the same. But while we’ve been growing and changing as a city, some of our policies haven’t kept up. How could they? Such is the case with Toronto’s noise bylaw, last updated in 2009. As a result, the city is hosting five public hearings (the last one is tonight) to gather feedback on the categories of power equipment, motor vehicles, amplified sound, construction noise and general noise. (If you missed it for any reason, you have the opportunity to submit your thoughts until February 7th to mlsfeedback@toronto.ca) The results  will be reported to city council this spring.  We’re also expecting a draft noise management plan in 2019 according to Toronto Pubic Health.

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Concern and Complaints About City Noise

So we’re having the conversation… which is a good thing. Municipal Licensing and Standards (MLS) started a working group in 2016 with members of Toronto Noise Coalition, construction, music industries, engineers and city staff. These groups were unable to reach consensus. This is understandable, as the issue is complex and has many stakeholders. But inevitably, there’s growing concern.

The number of noise complaints in our city increased from 8363 in 2015 to more than 10,100 in 2018.(For comparison, New York City logged more than 140,000 noise-related complaints between Winter 2013 and Fall 2014, or one complaint every four minutes – and tracked on an open data source). While an increase is natural in a growing city, what is not, is the way we’re handling the increase in complaints.

Toronto police handed over the responsibility for noise complaints to the city, which did not hire new bylaw enforcement officers and doesn’t intend to do so any time soon (as I understand it). Out of 285 city bylaw officers, only one is responsible for noise. The response for noise complaints averages five days. So, you can understand why there’s a problem. Particularly given the way the media emphasizes ALL THIS NOISE!

Is Noise A Public Health Risk?

A 2017 public health study co-authored with Ryerson Professor Dr. Oiamo, found the mean noise level in Toronto to be on average, ten decibels above Ontario Ministry of Environment and climate change guidelines two thirds of the time. Our average daily noise level according to the board of health is 63 dBa. The previous World Health Organization (WHO) threshold was 70 dBA, however Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Eileen de Villa’s says the new guidelines suggest negative impact at levels between  42 and 60 dBA.  Health risks according to the WHO go beyond hearing loss and extend into cognitive impact, sleep disturbance, mental health and cardiovascular effects.

According to the study,  89% of the population is exposed to noise levels above WHO guidelines during the day, and 43%  during the night. Construction during “restricted” hours comprises some of those complaints, but so do music and cars. In fact Dr. Oiamo claims transportation is responsible for 60% of our noise pollution.

Managing Construction Noise

But let’s go back to the basics in my area of interest. Construction. What are the rules to begin with? Simple…

The current bylaw allows construction on projects to take place Monday through Friday from 7 am to 7 pm. and Saturday 9 am – 7 pm. (This excludes municipal or emergency work). No construction is allowed on Sunday.

As with anything – there are exceptions to the rules. And often for valid reasons. PCL did an excellent job of communicating this in their permit for a noise exemption at camh.

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Good communication can go a long way.  But there’s still a shared concern about how to mitigate this moving forward.

One idea is to implement a noise-related permit for new building construction. According to RESCON Director of Building Science and Innovation Paul De Berardis, it would be challenging to add another layer of bureaucracy in an already complex regulatory environment. This would add more time and money to construction projects, which ends up being passed on to homebuyers and impacts affordability. He says the industry is open to studying best practices around the world and considering better mitigation practices.

But what are they? Well, if you think of New York, the loudest city in the world – the city that doesn’t sleep – their bylaws seem fairly similar, (last updated in 2007  by the way).  They follow similar hours of construction with other measures in place, like a required Construction Noise Mitigation Plan which is subject to inspection. They also have rules to minimize noise from specific types of tools and equipment. They also supplement their noise code with a guide to help “understand the most common sources of noise in the city.”

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Guide TO NYC Noise Code

Are Torontonians Really Concerned About Noise?

The sources of sound are many.  Yet, despite the focus on construction and amplified sound segments being the biggest culprits of disturbance, a poll by Ipsos Reid last year showed that people in Toronto are actually less concerned (46%) about noise from construction and heavy equipment, than they are about other issues in the city. Seventy-seven percent of people are worried about traffic and congestion, and 70% are concerned with public safety, overcrowded transit and affordability of housing.

That doesn’t negate the fact that we have to address noise. We have to shift from a reactive model to a proactive one. If we’re advocating for more mixed use communities it’s more critical than ever for all parties to get along, from inception through the life cycle of the project. Mixed use should only be permitted as such, if the residential component is protected from nuisance and disturbing noise.

We’re getting there. We’re continuing to learn and make better decisions. When you consider technology, we have more tools at our disposal today, than ever before. We will be able to use data driven analysis to create solutions. And it likely won’t be one solution. There are too many players and it’s not a one size fits all. There will be more than one right answer to solve this problem.

Until then, perhaps do as my three sons do. Put on your headphones and turn up the volume.  And also – remember to seek balance. Immerse yourself in nature. There’s much truth in the fact that we enjoy physiological benefits when we get out of an urban environment (and the stimuli of traffic lights, cars and concrete) and into a natural one. So regardless of the hope for quieter construction and more peaceful co-existence, adding some “green” to your routine is an essential ingredient in a well balanced urban lifestyle.


Feature Image – CBC – J.P. Moczulski/ The Canadian Press

Further reading



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