By Gabe Frayne
Picture, if you will, your last visit to Chicago, New York or any other noisy megalopolis. While visual images may come to mind, sounds are equally evocative.
Can you hear the soothing staccato sounds of a jackhammer scattering pavement to make way for a new skyscraper; the gentle roar of a 747 coming in for landing at 3 am or the melodious din of 100 people talking simultaneously in a hole-in-the-wall Moroccan place in Greenwich Village?
Urban noise is certainly not a new issue, so perhaps Portlanders should consider themselves fortunate that the main noise controversy in our city has to do with gas-powered leaf blowers.
These emitters of noise and air pollution are the singular focus of an organization called QuietCleanPDX (QC/PDX), lobbying city and state lawmakers to ban the devices completely.
In December 2019, City Council passed a resolution sponsored by late Commissioner Nick Fish mandating that city bureaus transition away from gas-powered leaf blowers.
“These devices are just harmful, noisy and polluting. So the devices themselves are something I’d like to get rid of,” says Albert Kaufman, a QC/PDX activist and current member of the Richmond Neighborhood Association (RNA). “There is no need for perfectly manicured lawns.”
Kaufman notes that gas leaf blowers have already been banned in 50 US cities, Hawaii and Israel, among other places.
In August, RNA passed a resolution “to support the efforts of QuietCleanPDX to ban gas leaf blowers.” However, the resolution noted that among the minority positions were “the ban does not go far enough” and “the ban could disproportionally impact people of color who comprise a large percentage of professional yard care workers.”
Indeed, this last point is a subject of considerable controversy.
“That’s often the first bit of pushback that we get, that we’re taking away people’s jobs,” says Kaufman, “but if you see people doing a job that is harmful not only to them, but to the people around them and to the environment in general, that’s why we have laws; that’s why we regulate.”
Xavier Leon, a landscaper who runs a business based in Portland, disagrees. He claims that electric blowers “are not efficient for doing the work,” and there are less noisy and less polluting gas blowers on the market now.
As for the humble rake, Leon says “it’s more work, a lot more work. I would charge more for people who don’t want to do [the job] with a blower.”
Leon did not say whether he thought a gas blower ban would threaten his business. In fact, the added labor cost of raking would be somewhat offset by lower overhead costs.
At a local Home Depot, a standard backpack gas leaf blower is priced at $229 (not factoring in gas), while a large-size garden rake goes for $16.98.
The QC/PDX website includes a list of yard services that offer “no blow service,” as well as “gas free tools only” and “hand tools only.”
Of course, gas powered leaf blowers are not the only culprit in what many perceive as the steadily increasing level of city noise in Portland. Increasing population brings with it increasing noise.
A meeting session entitled Environmental Noise: The New Second-Hand Smoke at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA) in Philadelphia last November, identified aircraft takeoffs and landings, construction activity and loud music, as well as gas-powered lawn equipment as sources of environmental noise.
Various medical specialists on the panel asserted that half the adult US population over age 60 “are impacted by clinically meaningful hearing loss,” which is associated with dementia, and that unwanted noise may entail “adverse effects…on learning and cognition.”
Here in Portland, the noise code is defined by a relative set of standards. The code lists amplified sound, music and construction as types of noise covered by the code, but not covered are aircraft (including helicopters), vehicle noise (including car alarms), and garbage/recycling noise.
Needless to say, gas-powered leaf blowers are not part of the enforcement code either. QC/PDX continues to push for legislation that will completely ban the device both locally and statewide.
Michael Hall, a founder of QC/PDX, reports: “We do have new City Council members coming on board who strongly support eliminating gas-powered leaf blowers.
“County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson and her staff remain committed to conven[ing] a county work group…so we remain hopeful for…a county-wide prohibition of sale and use of gas-powered leaf blowers.”