DAVID MENI, CHAPTER PRESIDENT
Urban acoustics is much more than a really excellent band name. It’s an emerging field of study that incorporates elements of urban planning and acoustic ecology—the study of sound’s impact on society and human functions. The study of urban sound planning has grown in popularity in parts of Europe but has yet to be holistically addressed in many American cities, even as new trends of mixed-use development make acoustic considerations more important.
While it may at first seem to be a trivial issue, acoustics can have an impact on everything from local economics to human psychology. Because of these intersectional issues, it’s important that cities take seriously those policies having to do with urban acoustics, take efforts to eliminate the socioeconomic disparities of noise pollution, and encourage creative use of sound design in new development projects and urban planning.
Now, before I get labelled as a grumpy “get off my lawn” type that doesn’t like loud noises, let me explain some of the current literature on noise pollution and acoustic ecology and how it impacts life in cities.
The World Health Organization and the EPA have established guidelines for community noise exposure: “Individuals [should] not exceed an 8-hour daily average level of 75 decibels or a 24-hour daily average of 70 decibels over a 40-year exposure period.” Seventy to seventy-five decibels is about as loud as a vacuum cleaner or a busy street; the New York Subway gets as loud as 105 decibels.
The public health impact of noise pollution, particularly in cities, is actually quite surprising. By 2050, there may be as many as 50 million people in the US with hearing impairment; younger generations have a rate of impaired hearing 2 1/2 times higher than that of their parents and grandparents, in large part due to the louder environments they live in. Sustained traffic noise in urban environments has been linked to everything from hypertension to sleep deprivation.
Urban acoustics even has an impact on economics. A Hofstra University study found a striking inverse relationship between noise levels and property value in residential areas, with a decrease in property value of 0.62% per decibel. Highways have an even greater impact; just the adjacent noise of a highway like the SE Freeway in DC can reduce property values 8-10%.
It’s important to note that the point of urban acoustic design is not meant to just make everything quiet. The type of noise is just as important to study as the volume—a coach bus and a crowded coffee shop are around the same decibel level. Good public spaces make use of noise as a cue for activity, and well-planned urban acoustic spaces can even go as far as providing the perfect natural acoustics for street musicians.
Soundscape mapping is an important tool for studying these kinds of relationships, but the practice is underutilized in the United States as a resource for planning. Below is an example of a soundscape map of a neighborhood in Seoul, South Korea, which shows trends of activity over the course of day.The crowd-sourced tool Sound Around You is a fun exploration of natural recordings, from birds chirping to squeaky metro escalators.
There are clear connections between the impacts of noise and the development trends of American cities, particularly as the automobile became ubiquitous in the 20th century. There’s no doubt that noise pollution is partially to blame for the 20th century phenomenon of over-zoning—the practice of so rigidly dividing residential, commercial, and industrial zones that they can no longer reinforce each other or create a sense of community. The desire to separate loud commercial and recreational space from residential areas led to this stark separation of land use seen in development of the last 40-50 years.
This trend introduces a disparity in noise pollution, which the American Public Health Association put the issue quite succinctly:
Even if you live in a city, it’s likely that you want to come home to some peace and quiet. But this tranquility often comes at a cost, and, without proper intervention and planning, can be relegated to a luxury. Low-income and minority communities are often not given a voice when high-noise land use (like a freeway) is placed near (or through) them, posing all the health risks, economic damages, and impediments to community growth mentioned above.
With the recent rise of New Urbanism and trends towards zoning for mixed-use, reduced sprawl, and greater density, urban acoustic design has become more important than ever.
If investments are made to advance urban acoustic planning, developments can more comfortably accommodate increased density.
A great example about how intentional acoustic design can encourage diverse and high-density are the plans for The Wharf development on DC’s Southwest Waterfront. Specifically, one building of the mixed-use plan contains both a 6,000 seat concert hall and residential units (the apartments effectively encase the concert hall). The site developers are working with a team of acoustic engineers to sufficiently soundproof the space—the concert hall can rock on while people upstairs can go about their business in peace.
Currently, there are two clear policy applications for urban acoustic design:
First, municipalities should seek to remedy the existing racial and income disparity in noise pollution. While nearly every locality has a noise ordinance, most are poorly enforced in the areas that need it most. To this end, more state and federal funding should be made available for the study of current urban soundscapes and methods of lessening the impact of noise pollution on public health and community development.
Second, American cities should embrace the range of new possibilities opened up by the continued advancement of acoustic design in built spaces. Developers both public and private can involve acoustic design earlier on in the development process, and acoustic considerations and their impacts on human behavior should be given greater consideration in urban planning.
Robust acoustic design can be an effective tool to fight increased sprawl in new developments and help make our cities more diverse.
Increased attention to the policy and practice of urban acoustic design can go a long way to improve the life of our cities. Well designed acoustic spaces can positively impact public health and local economies, as well as create novel ways to increase density and mixed-use development.
JACK NOLAND, ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
As another session begins, there’s a monumental case before the Supreme Court concerning the Affordable Care Act (ACA), better known as Obamacare. Hold on. Didn’t we settle this a few years ago? Weren’t the streets filled with gleeful liberals and fist-shaking conservatives as the Court upheld the President’s signature piece of legislation? As seems to be the answer to any political question, yes and no.
National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, the case decided in 2012, centered on the law’s individual mandate – the provision that eligible people need to buy health insurance or face a penalty so that there are enough healthy people in the insurance pool to keep everyone’s rates low. Since insurers cannot discriminate based on existing conditions, without the individual mandate, someone could wait until they got sick to purchase insurance, and it would be illegal for insurers to deny the coverage to them. Everyone would pay more, since the insurance pool would be primarily full of people who only purchased a policy once they had fallen ill.
In the end, Chief Justice Roberts joined the more liberal justices of the Court in holding that the individual mandate was indeed constitutional, which cleared the way for the law to be implemented. After a much-maligned rollout, the ACA remains in place. What’s the issue at hand now?
Essentially, King v. Burwell, the most recent case to dispute a component of Obamacare, will be decided over five words in an act running longer than nine hundred pages:
“an Exchange established by the State.”
A little more background: since the ACA mandates insurance coverage, there are potential issues for lower to middle class people who may not be able to afford the policies they are required to have. In thinking about this burden, the law establishes subsidies for these individuals.
The kicker, however, is that these subsidies are only available to those who purchase their insurance policies through a government-run exchange. As of 2011, 59.5 percent of Americans received their health insurance through their employer. To ensure that the remaining citizens were able to get insurance, the federal government encouraged states to establish marketplaces where people could pick the policy that worked for them. However, since the federal government cannot force the states to set up these exchanges, the law also provides for federal marketplaces to be developed in the states that choose not to build their own.
As the plaintiffs in King contend, if an individual purchases their policy in a federal marketplace, they will not be able to receive a subsidy, since the exchange was not “established by the State.” Whether or not this language was designed to restrict subsidies to state-run marketplaces, or rather to refer to the government exchange in a state in general (as opposed to the private marketplace), is up in the air. Should the Supreme Court hold the plaintiff’s interpretation to be correct, there will be massive economic implications.
Last year, five million people purchased insurance on the federal exchanges, and thirty-four states have a federally-facilitated or state partnership marketplace. Without subsidies, many people in these states would be unable to afford health insurance, and the ACA would be effectively kneecapped.
As an Urban Institute report estimates, should the plaintiffs win, the federal government would withhold $340 billion in tax credits over the course of 10 years. This would lead to 8.2 million more uninsured people in the states with federal exchanges, or a seventy-five percent decrease in coverage. Put simply, if your state didn’t vote to implement its own exchange, there’s a good chance you would be unable to afford insurance.
Crucially, there would also be a spillover effect. For many people, the cost of insurance would be more than 8% of their income and they would therefore be exempt from the penalty; in this case, it would be more affordable to forgo insurance entirely. As discussed above, insurance pools maintain low premiums by covering a wide swath of people, both sick and healthy. This loss of buyers into the insurance pool would exert economic pressure on the price of insurance policies, to the tune of thirty-five percent higher premiums for the marketplace.
There are very real expenses for both individuals and institutions here. According to Paula Brussard of the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, the cost to hospitals in that state of treating people with insufficient or no insurance increased about 50 percent, to over $1 billion in 2012. Keeping people insured makes clear economic sense.
Such a rate hike would have a profound impact on health insurance in general. Obamacare’s trusted defense rests on the idea that, at least in the long run, it will provide a cheaper alternative to the status-quo market. If premiums shot up, the legislation would lose the credibility it has struggled so hard to attain, as people become increasingly priced out. The number of uninsured individuals would rise, and we would be back to where we started.
This two-tiered system would defeat the purpose of the law: comprehensive coverage for all. The states that opted not to run their own exchanges would essentially be stuck with a higher percentage of uninsured citizens until they decided to implement programs of their own. In truth, this might light a fire under the states to try to set up their own markets, but, as Dan Schuyler of Leavitt Partners notes, this would cost the average state around $40 billion. Additionally, attempts to craft creative solutions in these states would fall flat, for the ACA’s “state innovation waivers” only grant states funding relative to the “amount of tax credits they would otherwise receive.” This is precisely why several of the states with federal exchanges have signed onto an amicus brief arguing against the plaintiff’s interpretation, and that they had received no forewarning that states with this type of marketplace would be denied subsidies.
For those who would have received subsidies and decide to buy insurance anyway, there are very real losses to savings and investment at stake. Instead of forcing people to choose whether high-priced health insurance is worth it for them because their state decided not to set up its own exchange, this comprehensive national reform should be allowed to be just that: comprehensive and national. Creating a system where some states receive benefits and others do not is not only against the spirit of the legislation, it is simply the wrong thing to do.
When the Supreme Court hears arguments on March 4, ignoring questions of plaintiff standing, it is under no obligation to consider economic impact. Nor should it, really.
The argument really comes down to statutory interpretation. In the context of the rest of the law, it is clear that Congress did not intend to create a system of two halves, and the argument that this was a move to try to incentivize states to set up their own exchanges is not compelling to me. If this were the case, there would be more explicit references to such a reform, as it truly would be a monumental division. Either way, this is a ruling whose effects will ripple through the economy.
The Affordable Care Act is an imperfect law, to be sure, and it needs works to best achieve its objectives. A ruling against federal subsidies in King v. Burwell, however, will have massive and negative economic repercussions. Ruling for the plaintiffs here would create an unnecessary two-tiered system outside the scope of the law’s intentions, and prevent millions from getting the health care they need, just as they seem to have secured it.
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