The Comprehensive City Plan Should Have a Noise Element

Yesterday, October 12th, the development of Austin’s new Comprehensive City Plan got underway with an excellent open house kickoff event.  Representatives from the city were on-hand with large displays to educate visitors about the process of developing a city plan and, more importantly, to collect information and opinions from the community.

To an acoustical engineer who has worked with the noise elements of many city plans, the lack of a planned noise element in Austin’s comprehensive plan seems like a glaring omission.  While speaking to city representatives, it occurred to me that the very idea of a noise element was a foreign concept.  When I mentioned noise, people immediately thought of community noise complaints, particularly concerning live music venues.  I also detected frequent misunderstandings about noise and acoustics in general.

The purpose of this article is two-fold.  The first goal is to make the case for including a noise element in the Austin comprehensive city plan.  The second, parallel goal will be to inform the reader about noise elements; what they are, and how they can be written.  To accomplish both of these goals simultaneously, this article steps through the sections of a typical noise element, explaining them and showing how they would relate to Austin.

Other than it simply being useful, there are some good reasons that Austin should have a noise element in its comprehensive plan.

  • First and most compelling, most of the content of a complete noise element already exists in the Austin Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan, 2008 Interim Update.  There are noise-related sections of ATCP listed throughout this article.
  • In addition to ATCP, more noise element content can be found in the Austin Code of Ordinances and in other sources, such as the Live Music Task Force recommendation report.
  • Austin is a leader in Texas.  While we lead Texas and, in some cases, the country, in environmental issues, we are lagging far behind most of the nation in noise issues.  Austin should be the conduit for good ideas into the state and a center for developing better ones.
  • CAMPO recommends that all cities develop noise elements for their general plans.

The Austin Tomorrow Interim Update includes a goal devoted strictly to noise.  Goal 350 and its subsections, listed below, can be found starting on page 59.


  • Objective 351.0 Reduce transportation related noise.
    • Policy 351.1 Minimize road vehicle noise.
    • Policy 351.2 Improve the design of residential areas relative to major arterials, and promote the use of buffers along major traffic routes.
    • Policy 351.3 Restrict non-compatible land uses near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
  • Objective 352.0 Regulate noise from stationary sources.
    • Policy 352.1 Limit construction and repair work to particular daylight hours.
    • Policy 352.2 Set specific noise performance standards for industry.
    • Policy 352.3 Control the location of noisy commercial establishments relative to residential areas.
  • Objective 353.0 Encourage acoustic considerations in residential construction.
    • Policy 353.1 Improve noise insulation and noise reduction features in the building codes.
    • Policy 353.2 Improve noise control features in multi-unit housing.
There are more sections found in the Austin Tomorrow Update dealing with noise listed in the following sections of this article.  All of these sections should be combined into a single document:  The noise element.

Purpose of a Noise Element

The goal of a noise element is simple, but important:  Protect people who live and work in Austin from excessive noise.  The negative effects of excessive noise are researched and well documented.  Sleep deprivation, distraction, and annoyance from intrusive sounds can lower quality of life and productivity in very real ways. Mindful planning can go a long ways towards avoiding unnecessary noise exposure.

A noise element is often divided into sections dealing with different aspects of community noise.  Each section gives information about a type of noise and what relevant measures the city proposes to take to protect its citizens.

Often city plans begin with an assessment of the current noise environment of the city.  This includes statements and general information about the most important noise sources in the city.  Some cities go so far as to commission noise studies by acoustical consultants to develop city-wide noise contours to aid in planning development.

The noise element will state the city’s general goals as they relate to noise.  This can include statements about what noise levels are considered acceptable or unacceptable or what general methodologies might be followed in protecting the city’s population from excessive noise.

Land Use Compatibility

A very important aspect of a noise element is its contribution to defining compatible land uses.  Land use compatibility guidelines assist planners and developers in deciding whether proposed developments meet the city’s vision as it pertains to noise.  Frequently, numerical guidelines are developed to define compatible, conditionally compatible, and incompatible land uses based on ambient noise at a location of interest.

Below is a simplified example of a table of compatible land uses similar to what you might find in a noise element.

Exterior Noise Exposure (dBA DNL)
Land Use Category Compatible Conditionally Compatible Incompatible
Open Space and Parks < 65 65 to 75 75+
Commercial < 70 70 to 75 75+
Residential <65 65 to 70 70+
Educational <65 65 to 70 70+

Austin already has compatible land uses defined by airport noise contours in the code of ordinances.  You can find them in Section 25-13-41.  It is not a large leap to expand that philosophy to include other sources of noise.

The Austin Tomorrow Plan includes the following sections relating to noise and land use compatibility planning:

  • Objective 123.0 Reduce the negative effects of automobile traffic in neighborhood environments.
    • Policy 123.1 Protect residential areas from excessive levels of noise pollution and physical danger from traffic.
  • Objective 322.0 Create and continue to support strong environmental standards for new development within the City limits and in the City’s ETJ.
    • Policy 322.8 Create development standards based on noise impact and air quality.

Transportation Noise

Often divided into traffic and rail, sections dealing with transportation noise present guidelines or standards for avoiding preventable exposure to noise from busy roadways and freight and commuter rail.  This may include minimum setbacks, triggers for noise studies based on traffic density, road design guidelines, or guidelines for establishing rail “quiet zones.”

Highway noise in particular is of increasing concern in Austin.  New and expanding roadways like MoPac and 183 bring with them new noise issues for nearby residents and businesses.

The Austin Tomorrow Plan has the following sections relating to transportation noise:

  • Objective 721.0 Maintain acceptable noise standards.
    • Policy 721.1 Develop appropriate noise standards for each classification of transportation and include noise considerations in the design, operation and maintenance of transportation facilities.
    • Policy 721.2 Within the city, limit the operation of motor freight vehicles to designated truck routes.
    • Policy 721.3 Use various means of buffering sound to reduce noise impacts on areas adjacent to transportation facilities.
    • Policy 721.4 Control the location and design of land uses so that noise-producing transportation facilities are not located near land uses which require a quiet setting.
    • Policy 721.5 Vigorously enforce noise regulations.

Aircraft Noise

The aircraft noise section of the element would include statements about the present aircraft noise environment in the city.  Most likely this would include graphics of present airport noise contours.  If there are military airfields in the city, noise contours developed in an AICUZ study may be included in the noise element, or at least referenced.

Objectives and policies relating to aircraft noise would be presented.  This could include guidelines for land use compatibility based on airport noise contours.  There may also be future projections of airport contours or AICUZ contours.

As previously mentioned, the existing code of ordinances addresses aircraft noise by defining compatible land uses based on noise contours (referred to as Airport Overlay Zones in Austin’s code).  This can be found in section 25-13-4.


(A) Within the controlled compatible land use area, the following airport overlay zones are created:

(1) Airport overlay zone one (AO-1) consists of the portions of the controlled compatible land use area that have a yearly day-night average sound level of at least 70 decibels and not more than 75 decibels.

(2) Airport overlay zone two (AO-2) consists of the portions of the controlled compatible land use area that have a yearly day-night average sound level of at least 65 decibels and not more than 70 decibels.

(3) Airport overlay zone one (AO-3) consists of the portions of the controlled compatible land use area that have a yearly day-night average sound level of less than 65 decibels and are located within approximately one-half mile of the 65 decibel contour line.

(B) The controlled compatible land use area and the airport overlay zones are depicted on the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport Land Use Map on file with the City Department of Aviation. The director of the Department of Aviation shall determine the location or meaning of a boundary or other feature on the map.

Events and Live Music

This is of special interest to Austin.  The issue of neighborhoods dealing with live music permeating the night air is a frequent topic of discussion and news stories.  Austin’s identity as The Live Music Capital puts a unique spin on this subject.

Considerable thought has been put into this topic in Austin, and some of this shows in the Live Music Task Force’s recommendation report.  The sum of this work can be collected into the noise element to help define Austin’s vision as a community for supporting live music as a premier feature of the city while simultaneously protecting its citizens from unfair intrusive sound.

Probably the  most relevant recommendation from the Live Music Task Force to the comprehensive plan is the following:


a. Recommend appropriate City departments and Austin Energy jointly explore and develop construction methods that reduce and improve sound attenuation at outdoor venues.

b. Recommend the City require all future Central Business District (CBD) commercial venues to adhere to enhanced construction methods that include improving acoustical insulation and soundproofing.

Noise Mitigation

Noise elements frequently provide guidelines for noise mitigation methodology.  This can include recommendations for erecting noise barriers, suggested building shell design, and land use or property arrangement techniques.  To those not trained in acoustics, the benefits or pitfalls of certain noise mitigation techniques may not be obvious and such a section provides a good starting place for any noise mitigation effort.

Other Sections

Additional sections addressing other noise sources such as industrial noise or commercial noise are common.

Also, sections dealing with types of noise sensitive areas, such as parks, religious places, or solemn areas such as cemeteries are possible.  Austin is a very outdoor oriented city that features a number of important outdoor public spaces.  Parks, trails, gardens, and outdoor museums all benefit from protection from noise.

In Conclusion

The impetus for a noise element in the comprehensive city plan already exists, as evidenced by ATCP 2008 and other official city documents.  The reason for the exclusion of a noise element from the initial 10 planned elements of the Comprehensive Plan is probably a simple lack of knowledge of such a document type.  When reviewing Austin’s already existing goals for protecting its residents and workers from unwanted noise, developing a noise element should seem like an obvious choice.  Consolidating all noise goals into a single location will provide uniformity and avoid redundancy.

Here are a few examples of noise elements from other city plans.

San Diego



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