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The economic value of quiet

The economic value of quiet

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I had an interesting experience recently. I’d spent all day at work dealing with the general public, and then had to meet someone at 10pm, so I looked to eat dinner outside. It had been a long day, and I was aching to find somewhere with peace and quiet.

Usually in Canberra, I enjoy eating along Lonsdale Street in Braddon, due to the varied food choices on offer. But last night, I was amazed to see how busy they were for a mid-week night in winter. All of these restaurants had music blaring from speakers, so I went back into the city centre and looked around for somewhere calmer to eat. Again, it was hard to find anywhere without a soundtrack. Eventually, I visited Rice Tapas, which is one of the few places hanging on in Garema Place. The food was OK…and I was the only customer there. There was some background music playing, but it was gentle and soft.

However, the experience got me thinking. I appreciate that each restaurant wants to set the mood for its patrons. But as Canberra’s density rises, and more people are living closer together, surely it will be harder to find quieter spaces outside of our private homes. And I think that such spaces are valuable during the working day, when our stress levels are elevated.

I mentioned in a previous blog post (https://www.soupthink.com/blog-page/2017/9/10-landscape-and-architecture-valued-enough) that quietness and calmness are valued in Japanese culture. Ironically, though, despite all the talk around “mindfulness” and related topics in recent years, there doesn’t appear to be much awareness of this at a higher level here in Australia. I am yet to see an apartment complex market its public areas as being serene places of relaxation, or indeed a shopping centre market itself as being a place where one can escape the noise and stress of modern life.

Which raises deeper questions – do Australians actually fear silence, as we appear to do with darkness? Are we collectively afraid to spend time alone with our thoughts – perhaps because we don’t like the idea of what might bubble up if we do? Or is it just something that we feel we have no control over?

There are noise pollution regulations, of course, and my own rental lease talks about “the quiet enjoyment of the property”. But these laws exist to stop more extreme noise levels – not the background noise and music heard everywhere these days. And there appears to be a real estate premium on “quiet streets” and the like. Is quiet (in this sense) actually about quietness, or more about being able to disengage from the general public?

On a smaller level, what about the types of materials that firms typically build with? One reason the restaurants I mentioned earlier are so noisy is that virtually every surface was hard, so naturally the noise would bounce around. Likewise, in many of the apartment blocks being built near me (including my own), public areas are concrete canyons, and door frames are metal, meaning that they slam every time people come and go. 

What would happen if such laws actually proactively looked to reduce noise levels proactively in certain areas? Could it cause a shift in relative property values - and more importantly, would it shift the culture over time?

For my Canberran readers, the ACT Government is running several projects on related issues at present. The first is around housing choices (https://www.yoursay.act.gov.au/housing-choices), where I think we can talk about housing impacts upon our soundscape. The second is an inquiry into building quality – where the materials we build with has a major impact (https://www.parliament.act.gov.au/in-committees/standing-committees-current-assembly/standing-committee-on-economic-development-and-tourism/inquiry-into-building-quality-in-the-act).

What do you think?

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