Promoting health and environmental rights through participatory noise mapping in the city

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Anna Berti Suman*

Tilburg Institute for Law Technology and Society, Tilburg University, Tilburg, The Netherlands

*Telephone: +31134668403; E-mail:

Postal address: Prof. Cobbenhagenlaan 221, 5037 DE Tilburg, The Netherlands.

Excessive noise levels represent a pressing issue seriously affecting people’s health and wellbeing in contemporary cities. High levels of noise can threaten both mental and physical health, causing persistent stress and impinging over environmental rights such as the right to a healthy environment. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has often reflected on the connection between environmental protection and human health. In a number of cases, some expressly dealing with noise-associated nuisances, the ECtHR has been lenient in identifying causal links between environmental harm and resulting health effects. In the Dubetska case, for example, the Court found a breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) enshrining the respect for private and family life because of severe water pollution. The Court noted that it is “often impossible to quantify [pollution] effects in each individual case” (para 106) but it suffices that pollution is “in clear excess of applicable safety standards [creating an] elevated risk to health” (para 111) to determine a breach of Article 8 ECHR. Specifically addressing noise-induced pollution, in the Deés case, the Court again affirmed that the mere fact that the noise exceeded substantially statutory norms was sufficient to constitute a violation of Article 8 ECHR. This open interpretation may allow citizens monitoring their environment to stand in court for violation of their right to health or to a healthy environment whenever they can demonstrate a substantial exceeding of (national or international) environmental standards.

The right to a healthy environment was recognized at the first global conference on the environment held in Stockholm in 1972, through the enactment of Principle 1 of the Stockholm Declaration. Yet the Declaration for its non-binding nature does not create a true obligation for the states to respect such a provision. It is rather the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s Aarhus Convention, adopted in 1998 and having the nature of a binding legal text, which at its preamble recalls Principle l of the Stockholm Declaration (and Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development). The Principle reaffirms the right of every person to a healthy environment, to which realization the rights of access to information is considered functional. This understanding of access to environmental information as a means to ensure a healthy environment is particularly relevant for this discussion on civic environmental monitoring and production of environmental information. In the European region, the right to a healthy environment has evolved through an extensive interpretation of relevant provisions of the ECHR as the Convention itself does not explicitly refer to the environment. The ECHR has indeed assessed environmental human rights’ infringements against other rights recognized in the Convention, such as the right to life and physical integrity (Article 2 ECHR) and the right to privacy, home and family life (Article 8 ECHR). Over recent history, requests have been advanced by scholars to urge the Council of Europe to adopt a right to a healthy environment but, up to now, the Council has not embraced this push to include in the ECHR such a right. Also the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, as interpreted by the Court of Justice of the European Union, played a significant role in terms of environmental protection. Article 37 of the Charter is the most relevant for the aim of this discussion, affirming that “a high level of environmental protection and the improvement of the quality of the environment must be [..] ensured in accordance with the principle of sustainable development.”

High noise levels may seriously threaten the enjoying of the discussed rights. Proximity to transport hubs often worsens the noise burden that the dwellers have to bear. Political and economic interests related to the growth of transport networks in the city frequently conflict with the interests of the citizens for a peaceful living environment. Increasingly, lay people (that is, non-expert people or experts not acting in their professional role) are engaging in measuring environmental parameters affecting their own health. These actors can be described as  ‘Citizen Scientists’.  The phenomenon of grassroots’ actors monitoring environmental condition is bringing in new evidence on the effects of persistent high noise levels – among the other environmental factors – on human health. Such evidence can inform policies aimed at governing noise risks and foster a higher respect of the right to health and individual and collective environmental rights. Practices of participatory noise monitoring qualify more specifically as ‘Citizen Sensing’.  ‘Citizen Sensing’ can be defined as a sub-set of Citizen Science entailing the monitoring of environmental (health) parameters using smartphones and networked devices, which may foster citizen participation in tracking environmental (health) risks. ‘Risk’, in this context, can be defined as the probability or threat of damage or any other negative occurrence caused by external or internal vulnerabilities (e.g. environmental risks), which may be avoided through pre-emptive action, and which affects public health. ‘Noise’ can be framed as an unwanted sound that is perceived as unpleasant, loud or disruptive to hearing and which, in some cases, can impact public health.

‘Citizen Sensing’ practices take place in the social context of an ongoing debate questioning the exclusive role of authorities and professional scientists in taking decisions and producing knowledge over risk problems affecting citizens’ daily life but also – and importantly – health and environmental human rights. Such a debate entails the fundamental question on whether political and social issues are better resolved through reliance on technical expertise only or, rather, also including civic knowledge and deliberation when fundamental rights of the concerned citizens are at stake. The discussion is also, ultimately, a reflection on boundaries: what counts as legitimate knowledge for informing (environmental) decision-making is increasingly blurred. Leaving affected people’s input out of the debate may be seen as a way to reinforce environmental injustice(s). Moreover, projects of participatory monitoring not only engage laymen but often include also experts, just not acting in their professional role, which demonstrates that the divide between citizens and experts is not straightforward (anymore). In these experiences, expert opinion and lay perception meld and complement one another, rather than compete, pushing for forms of participatory democracy ‘on the ground’. Lastly, laymen engaging in such initiatives ultimately aim to ‘cross-check’ official environmental data, challenging or aiming at restoring trust in appointed institutions. In doing so, as recognized in the preamble of the Aarhus Convention, sensing citizens draw a link between access to environmental information and promotion of healthier environmental conditions.

One may question why citizens engage in such alternative or complementary monitoring practices when official environmental impact assessments - mandatory under domestic legislation - already provide for public participation and consultation. The problem is that, often, citizens perceive these ‘institutional venues’ for public engagement as detached from their actual needs and as too formalized. Moreover, in case of highly politicized infrastructural projects, citizens may struggle to ‘trust’ officially offered spaces for participation as they expect the institution will not take account their perspective. Lastly, citizens could consider it more effective to appeal to (social) media instead, publishing there their data and claims on noise. This way, ‘Citizen Sensing’ becomes a way to actuate participation and environmental rights otherwise. A case, the NoiseTube project in Paris, shows this potential. Tackling the issue of noise pollution, the NoiseTube project was initiated in Paris by the Sony Computer Science Laboratory in 2008. Choosing as an example a project that started even before the ‘boom’ of ‘Citizen Sensing’ (identified by Boulos et al. in 2011) and that is still active and growing today demonstrates that these practices can be sustained over time. The project was launched to develop a “new participative approach for monitoring noise pollution [..] enabling each citizen to measure […] exposure in his everyday environment and participate in the collective noise mapping.” The project entails citizens gathering, analysing and sharing risk information on open access, collective noise maps, by installing a free application on GPS-equipped mobile phones (yet, ownership of a smartphone is a gate-keeper). Engaging with the measurements, citizens can gain an understanding of their daily exposure to noise but also contribute to creating a collective data source on noise based on local knowledge for improving institutional governance.

Ultimately, this can be seen as a form of ‘enhancing’ environmental rights, both giving people control over environmental information for taking individual and collective action and making them more informed on noise trends and thus more able to argue with competent institutions on noise management decisions. In the end, as recognized by the Aarhus Convention, knowing about your surrounding environment is the first step to be able to argue about eventual violations and demand actions for environmental protection. That said, it can be concluded that ‘Citizen Sensing’ has a potential in terms of generating awareness among the public on environmental issues and creating citizens cross-check mechanisms of institutional information. The citizens with their own measuring equipment flip the relationship with the institution(s) responsible for the risk problem, from passive recipients of information to active collectors, thus claiming their role in a space not traditionally reserved for them. The sensing individuals, this way, become able to discuss on an informed basis the data gathered by themselves with the data presented by experts. As found by the ECtHR in the Deés case, the citizens may eventually become able to prove that perceived noise levels exceed statutory norms and thus demand intervention from the competent authorities. These participatory systems cannot substitute official noise monitoring platforms. Yet, they can bring fresh new evidence, which can trigger a social but also judicial debate and ultimately promote the respect of health and environmental human rights. Lastly, these initiatives may bring useful data to decision-makers, attending to the fact that often local knowledge is not sufficiently taken into account in official interventions.


Anna Berti Suman is a PhD researcher at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society (The Netherlands), currently also Visiting Researcher at the European Commission Joint Research Center. Her PhD project aims at investigating how grassroots-driven Citizen Sensing can challenge and ultimately influence environmental risk governance. Anna has work and research experience in environmental risk policy (Ecuador), water management (Chile) and the public health sector (London). Besides academia, Anna volunteers as pro-bono environmental lawyer for non-governmental organizations.

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