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Providence is as loud as Boston, Brown professor says

On the R.I. Report podcast, Professor Erica Walker and R.I. PBS Weekly reporter Michelle San Miguel say sound is a proxy for power and that noise is loudest in low-income neighborhoods

Rhode Island PBS Weekly reporter Michelle San Miguel, left, and Brown University Professor Erica Walker, right, speak to Boston Globe reporter Edward Fitzpatrick on the Rhode Island Report podcast.Carlos Muñoz

PROVIDENCE — Providence is as loud as Boston, according to a Brown University professor who runs the Community Noise Lab.

Erica Walker, an assistant professor of epidemiology whose students have measured sound levels throughout Providence, joined Rhode Island PBS Weekly reporter Michelle San Miguel on the Rhode Island Report podcast to talk about noise pollution.

“Rhode Island is a small state. Providence is a small city,” Walker explained. “It’s compact, so everything happens in a tight area. And when you think about it, it’s just like a symphony of different sources.”

That cacophony of blaring sirens, blasting music, and revving ATVs tends to be loudest in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, Walker said. Sound is a proxy for power, she said. “It just denotes a significant power differential, both in why things are loud and who gets the ability to make things quiet.”


San Miguel, who interviewed city residents for an episode titled “Green Seeker: All That Noise,” said Brown researchers found that Upper South Providence and South Elmwood are the loudest neighborhoods, with decibel levels equivalent to the sound of a hairdryer running nonstop, and that College Hill and Blackstone are the quietest neighborhoods.

San Miguel said she interviewed a Federal Hill resident who told her that noise makes it difficult for him to work, and that he has developed ringing in his ears. She said the man told her he could move to a less noisy area, but he asked: “What happens to the next person who comes in? Are we just going to kick the can down the road and just always make this someone else’s problem?”

Walker said sustained exposure to high levels of noise can have an impact on people’s physical and mental health.

While sound at very high levels can damage a person’s hearing, sustained loud noises also can trigger the “fight-or-flight” response in the human body, she said. “You can kind of think of it as the same response that prepares you to fight a ferocious tiger or a lion,” she said. And being stimulated like that over a long period can lead to serious cardiovascular diseases and take a toll on mental health, causing anxiety and depression, she said.


Walker said that if residents are concerned about noise levels, they may contact the Community Noise Lab, and they should talk to local officials about potential solutions. “I think they’ve just got to get louder in terms of making noise,” she said. “Make some noise.”

To get the latest episode each week, follow Rhode Island Report podcast on Apple Podcasts and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player above.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at Follow him @FitzProv.