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My bad relationship: urbanism

2012 May 25

I recently moved to a new apartment, again, after just doing so last fall. Neither move was one that I particularly wanted to make. This latest live/work space has its advantages and disadvantages like they all do, but on balance I would much prefer to be in my first Lakewood apartment, in addition to having avoided all of the expense and wasted time and energy of moving twice in the space of several months.

And yet I went to the trouble and expense of moving, out of and away from a space and a location that I really liked, because I had to escape noise from neighbors.

Which is why I’ve begun to feel like urban living is turning into a “bad relationship” for me. I still love so many things about it. After spending my entire childhood and adolescence in a big single-family home some distance from the nearest neighbors on all sides at the fringe of a town of a few thousand people in eastern Iowa, I’ve become increasingly “urbanized” throughout adulthood. And for the most part I really like it that way. I never lived out in a truly rural setting anyway, and have never particularly wanted to; so long as I am living within some sort of “urban” setting I generally feel like, for me at least, it’s just as well to live in the midst of a relatively dense and active urban landscape where I can not only take advantage of the economic opportunities of the larger region, but also enjoy convenient access to the goods and services I want. Can, in other words, step outside and quickly drop in at the bank, the drug store, the library, the post office, eateries, markets, etc., etc., often just by walking. Except that I had that, in spades, and have ended up sacrificing a good deal of it in moving to another apartment at a rather less “walkable” address because I need someplace I can reliably get a quiet night’s sleep! And thus, it feels kind of like I’m in a bad relationship, in that I’m still drawn to urban life and yet it feels increasingly difficult to get along in a life together.

Admittedly one could say that the problem here is not urbanism or urban living, but apartment living, or noisy and thoughtless apartment-dwellers. Except that I don’t think there’s much meaningful separation between these things. Urbanism, along with most of its desirable features, basically means density; more people living closer together is fundamental to the concept. And while “urban” is a relative term, our modern notions of urban density (i.e. not countryside, or a village or even a small town) pretty much require at least some significant element of multi-story, multifamily housing, i.e. apartments. And, in general, many of those apartments are going to have at least one or two tenants who are noisy and inconsiderate of their neighbors at any given time, just because that’s what people are like.

And unfortunately, right now, I don’t see any good solutions to this. Reforming or removing problem tenants is not exactly a simple, desirable or effective approach on any kind of general basis. Avoiding them is difficult because one can’t see noise during a five-minute daytime walkthrough, or even hear it particularly if it’s noise which occurs at 3 a.m. I think the ideal solution would be based on architecture and materials engineering, rather than on some form of social engineering, but unfortunately after lengthy examination I’ve found that while advances in acoustics may offer enormous possibilities if implemented as part of new construction or even in renovation of older buildings, for the individual renter this isn’t especially practical. And, as with noisy tenants, it’s difficult to reliably tell the difference between a building with great sound insulation and one with thin super-conductive partitions.

What I find most disappointing, however, is the fact that no one seems to particularly care about or discuss this matter very much. Despite all of the ongoing conversation about urbanism and urban design and residential density, I feel like most people taking an interest in these subjects basically perceive residences themselves as just interchangeable commodities. I see constant discussion of how many of them to build, how high to stack them, how to integrate them with transit systems, etc., etc., but almost nothing about the nature of the buildings themselves or the experience of life inside them.

And maybe I read the wrong stuff, maybe noise and other internal quality-of-life challenges do receive attention in architecture or property development circles, e.g., but I feel like that still doesn’t really excuse the absence of thinking about them from conversation among advocates and observers of more general “urban” design and planning. I just don’t think you can meaningfully separate issues of creating a densely-populated vibrant urban community from the problems inherent in dense multifamily housing. Problems which, for what it’s worth, are by no means limited to neighbor noise although personally I think that a lot of otherwise little, trivial inconveniences and indignities are badly exacerbated when one is dragging around miserable and sleep-deprived as a result of someone upstairs on a two-week twenty-four-seven bender or someone downstairs choosing to re-enact Wrestlemania III between 2:30 and 5:30 a.m.

I should note that I sense two likely rebuttals to a call for more integrated concern about noise and other in-building challenges among discussion of urbanism, aside from “that’s not my department to worry about.” One is probably “hey, quit whining, just live with it.” And y’know, I don’t know what I can say to that aside from pointing out that I’m hardly looking for monastic silence. I’ve been living in some sort of multi-family housing since I went to college almost sixteen years ago, after all. And I lived in my first Lakewood apartment beneath a relatively loutish upstairs neighbor for more than three years before a quantum increase in intrusive noise over an extended period finally drove me away. I’m not a born-and-raised Manhattanite indifferent to anything, but I’m hardly a complete crybaby either. I think that if dense urban living is going to be a toughness contest then this will completely negate arguments for it as a lifestyle which is not only efficient but desirable and attractive for more than just a few hardy pioneers. (For those who don’t care, of course, that’s fine, but the thing is that I do; I want to live in a denser urban setting but I find myself being driven away from it because I also want to sleep at night.)

The other likely rebuttal is probably that, well, it must not be much of a problem all the same because there’s no shortage of demand for multifamily housing in dense urban settings. Indeed, as Matthew Yglesias and Ryan Avent among others have been documenting, in many large cities there is huge surplus demand which is unmet because of development restrictions. To this, about all I can say is that this doesn’t constitute much of a valid argument that there is no serious problem. Unless we are to look at continued desire for immigration to the United States and conclude that the United States therefore has no serious problems requiring any kind of improvement or even consideration.

But, all that said, at nearly 34 years old I’ve long accepted a separation between what is “valid” and what prevails, and generally resigned myself to taking things as I find them and trying to operate as best I can within the world as it exists, at least in terms of my personal day to day life. So for now I’ve moved yet again, following the best and most patient effort at vetting choices among the existing housing in the area I could manage, and hopefully that will prove successful. And down the road, well, we’ll see. I do suspect that in future moves, personal funds allowing, detached single-family housing will become more of a consideration; c’est la vie.

2 Responses
  1. May 25, 2012

    First: “Loutish” made me smile. 🙂

    Second: You’ve hit on one of the reasons why I was eager to get out of apartment living and into a single-family dwelling. I seem to recall a conversation with my then-wife that included the phrase “I don’t want to share a wall with anybody!” Until I got my dog, I viewed my lawn primarily as more-space-between-me-and-the-neighbors. (After I got my dog, it’s also become quite useful as his toilet.) I really like the idea of being within walking/biking distance of various amenities and I want to be more green by not driving as much, but I got more than my share of noisy neighbors in college. My “and stay off my damn lawn” rants stem largely from an active attempt to increase my personal space, so I’m not even close enough to hear those inconsiderate louts when they’re being particularly inconsiderate and loutish.

    The sound issue wasn’t the ONLY reason I wanted a house, certainly, but it was pretty high on the list.

    Third: I seem to recall reading/hearing at one point that builders and architects are generally well aware about soundproofing in apartment structures, and know what can be done to audibly insulate tenants from one another. The issue is cost. I don’t recall the specifics, but after a certain point, it starts becoming exponentially expensive to further reduce noise. You can find apartments that do an excellent job of soundproofing, but you’re typically going to have to pay a premium for that. And most people who are willing/able to afford that luxury are also the ones who are willing/able to afford additional premiums like marble floors and living room fountains and whatever. So they tend to get lumped together, effectively being priced out of most people’s reach.

  2. Matt permalink
    May 25, 2012

    1) Happy Friday!

    2) Yeah, obviously you see exactly where I’m coming from (and possibly where I’m going). It still seems dismal that, with all of the technology available to us, the only reliable noise buffer available in most cases is a moat of otherwise essentially-unused real estate. But…

    3) Yeah, I see various problems at work. One is probably simple cost. Combined with that there’s probably a “good enough” factor, similar to that involved with the atrocious ergonomics of the typical office workstation, i.e. most people manage well enough most of the time that those who do encounter problems are left almost completely on their own. Plus a classic market failure in the form of ineffective signaling: it’s difficult to readily and convincingly communicate which properties have (or lack) good sound insulation, and this sharply reduces the incentive to invest money in it. In the situation you describe, it’s basically lumped in as part of a packaged “everything high-quality” deal, which provides a rough and indirect signaling about noise levels but at very high cost.

    So, as I say, meh.

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