Opinion: Don’t kill the acoustic goose

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Sound – and silence – are intimately connected to how we experience our environment and our emotional responses to it.

The failure to recognise this was a massive shortcoming of QAC’s research and analysis in the preparation of its airport masterplan.

We can all agree that our natural environment is the foundation stone of Queenstown’s value for business and people. The natural environment is our only ‘golden goose’.

So what is this natural environment? Land, water and air are the three elements that first come to mind and it’s therefore no surprise that we already have clear legal structures that recognise and protect each of these.

Locally, our district plan protects much of our amazing mountain scenery by zoning it ‘outstanding natural landscape’.

A Water Conservation Order provides national park-level protection of our outstanding Kawarau River and a host of regulations and laws protect the waters of Lake Wakatipu from pollution.

Protection of air, such as the ORC Clean Air Plan to protect Arrowtown’s winter air quality, is aimed at limiting airborne particulates.

These three elements are important, but they provide an incomplete framework of what constitutes our natural environment.

The quality of light and effects of light pollution have been recognised only recently as impacting on our natural environment. Without even noticing, most of the world’s population has lost the sparkle of a starry night. That the far-sighted Mackenzie District Plan has enacted lighting controls since 1981 created the opportunity to establish, in 2012, the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve.

But the quality of sound as an intrinsic element of our natural environment is still ignored. As is evident on p17 of the QAC masterplan, the constraints to growth were outlined without any reference to the ability of our outstanding natural environment to absorb large increases in industrial noise without damaging it.

This is extraordinary. In contrast, any application to dump sewage or industrial chemicals into our lakes or rivers, to spew industrial gases into our air, or to impact on our natural landscapes would face huge legal hurdles. Yet with noise, the soundscape is omitted from any such protection.

Sound is an enormously important component of our sensory experience. Its potency to impact on our emotions is deeply understood within the film, music, gaming and sport industries.

Similarly, sound plays a vital role in shaping our experience of the real world. Where the outstandingness of our environment has to do with majestic vistas, vast open spaces, clarity and cleanness, it’s with sound that we feel, hear and connect to it. The expanse of silence from a mountaintop, the bounce of a stream, the ripple of waves, the rustling of leaves, the twitter of birds, the whisper of a breeze across our cheeks – these sometimes-subtle soundscapes form the emotional backdrop of our experiences.

This understanding of sound, the sense of aura and space, its contribution to our experience of greatness and wonder in this mountainous region, was completely missed in the QAC analysis. Their focus was instead on volumes, frequency, nuisance effects and potential for hearing impairment.

It’s no surprise the local community rose up. Never on any single issue have I witnessed such a strong reaction or one where voices are unified across so many normally divergent groups.

It’s clear from that the proposed increase in aircraft noise would not just be an irritation at our backyard BBQs but would undermine the special value of our Wakatipu environment and contribute to killing our golden goose.

QAC did listen – congratulations to them for this – and now we’re moving to the next stage. It’s our collective responsibility to find a way to live and work here and to share our place with visitors without destroying what makes it special.

Increasing such industrial noise would ruin it, whether this increase is now or in 30 years or in 100 years. Our challenge is to investigate and invest in strategies that provide for managed growth in a way that protects and enriches our district’s natural environment in all its outstanding facets.

 

John Hilhorst is a former Wakatipu High School economics and social studies teacher, who has lived in Queenstown since 1995