Quiet may be making a comeback. “As a result of COVID-19 lockdowns, something unique has happened: Many people now know quiet,” says acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton. His One Square Inch of Silence project in Olympic National Park spotlighted in 2005 what he then considered the quietest place in the United States.
Hempton is a co-founder of Quiet Parks International (QPI), a nonprofit dedicated to putting natural quiet within reach of as much of the world’s population as possible by certifying and protecting peaceful places.
In early June, QPI certified the world’s first Urban Quiet Park in one of the most densely populated places on the planet. Just north of Taipei, Taiwan, Yangmingshan National Park is a 43-square-mile area known for its relaxing hot springs, mountainous terrain, and endemic birds.
“Urban Quiet Parks offer natural beauty and inner stillness on a daily basis, and they offer it to a target set of people who desperately need quiet,” says Vikram Chauhan, president of QPI.
Rather than complete silence, natural quiet is defined as the sounds of nature without human-made noise. QPI’s aim is to certify roughly 50 Urban Quiet Parks around the world in coming years, in addition to Wilderness Quiet Parks.
The certification of Yangmingshan National Park as the first of its kind feels particularly poignant during pandemic times, when many people on lockdown—particularly those living in cities where noise pollution usually dominates the soundscape—may have experienced relative quiet for the first time in their lives.
Last year, QPI certified the Zabalo River in Ecuador as its first Wilderness Quiet Park. The organization is eyeing potential Urban Quiet Parks in places including New York City, Miami, and Stockholm.
While there are no naturally quiet places left on Earth—according to Hempton, human-made noise, usually in the form of transportation (by highway, rail, air, and boat) pervades every corner of the planet—QPI uses varying standards of stillness to certify its wilderness and urban quiet parks.
Regular acoustic studies are carried out after a park’s certification to ensure it’s held to QPI’s standards.
Natural sounds, of course, register increased decibels—imagine the pound of surf on a beach or a chorus of singing frogs—but the goal, explains Ulf Bohman, executive director of Urban Quiet Parks, is for the background noise to be no higher than 45 decibels. That’s akin to library-level chatter.
Where hush is healing
The effects of noise pollution on humans have been widely studied and attributed to health issues that range from stress and sleep disturbances to high blood pressure and heart disease.
Places with natural quiet are important to animals, as well, says Jesse Barber, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Boise State University.
“Human-caused noise is known to interfere with animals’ abilities to hear important sounds, like birdsong, and to fundamentally alter where animals live and their reproductive fitness,” he says.
“Even U.S. national parks experience significant noise exposure at levels known to impact wildlife,” says Barber. In a noise reduction study at Muir Woods National Monument in California, where signs urged visitors to turn down the volume in one area of the park, he says, the result was an increased number of birds near the trails.
In the U.S., the areas with the most potential for tranquil experiences are those with the least flyover traffic from airplanes and remoteness from other transportation noises, according to Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization that has mapped out the last remaining places of natural quiet in the continental U.S.
The organization’s research indicates that places including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota and Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in western Montana are among the country’s last remaining natural quiet areas. The northernmost U.S. states are generally more likely to have spaces of natural quiet, says Blomberg.
Hempton points to Haleakalā National Park in Maui (the crater of which he considers the quietest place on Earth), Glacier National Park, and Big Bend National Park among the U.S. parks embarking on initial certification as Wilderness Quiet Parks with QPI.
Learning how to listen
“Once you certify a place as a quiet park, it eventually changes behaviors, much in the same way people have learned about the importance of recycling through education and awareness, ” says Kenya Williams, who is finishing his doctorate in urban planning and acoustic ecology at Portland State University. Williams, an advisor for QPI, believes a cultural shift is necessary to help people value and steward quiet in urban areas.
In Taiwan, Laila Chin-Hui Fan, one of the country’s preeminent environmental journalists and the founder of the Soundscape Association of Taiwan, points to the power of people to support the effort. Fan, who got to know Hempton during his One Square Inch of Silence project, was instrumental in drawing QPI’s attention to the park on her native island, where she recorded Yangmingshan’s soundscape across three districts in the lead-up to certification.
“We have a very painful and complicated history, which taught us a lot,” Fan says. “Our voices are not allowed to be heard in the world because of the diplomatic dilemma [stemming from Taiwan’s push for sovereignty], so we decided to be an island of listening. I’m expecting more and more people in the world will come to my country and hear the natural quiet of Taiwan.”
For QPI, the hope is that by certifying a few places in every country, people who wish to access natural quiet will be able to find it.
“We aren’t saying that quiet is for everyone and that everyone should experience it,” says Hempton, “but I do feel the choice is essential to quality of life.”