Too Much Noise: Taiwan Struggling Between Economic Prosperity And Quality Of Life Issues

 
on October 05 2012 1:42 PM

The overcrowded island of Taiwan has a big problem with noise – the volume is simply too high and has become unbearable for much of the public.

The sounds of cars, factories, scooters, construction projects and other ill effects of modern urban life have overwhelmed a beleaguered people that now demands a better (and quieter) quality of life.

In response, the government is seeking to pass measures that will lower the volume a few decibels starting next year.

With a population of 23 million crammed into just one-third of the small island (the other two-thirds are occupied by mountains), Taiwan is one of the most densely populated – and noisiest -- places on earth.

That, combined with a rapidly modernizing economy and a steadily increasing influx of tourists (particularly from mainland China), has led to unbearable, nearly round-the-clock orgy of unwanted noise that has ruined the peace of mind of many Taiwanese.

With limited space, the country has to somehow find a balance between maintaining economic growth with lifestyle quality concerns.

The country’s need to use land both economically and creatively has created a unique landscape, drastically different from many western nations, where residential areas are often separated from industrial parts of the cities.

In many places in Taiwan, it is not uncommon to see several buildings packed closely next to one another with shops, restaurants and bookstores on the first floor, residential apartment units for floors above, with an underground community parking garage beneath, all the while having vendors occupying the tiny alleys between buildings.

One also sees cars and scooters skillfully parked and packed on the sides of the roads and hordes of people passing through quickly -- not by walking in a straight line, but by circumventing hundreds of obstacles on the sidewalk (which is virtually non-existent, as oftentimes people have to share the same road with automobiles).

For a long time, Taiwanese people were happy with the bustling lifestyle – though the noise level was high, many city-dwellers perceived those noises as evidence for the state’s prosperity and growth. In fact, many considered living in the vicinity of shops and restaurants as an advantage, which made it a common selling point for the housing market.

Ever since the 1960s, Taiwan’s government policies have always been heavily economic-focused. Placing economic and industrial development at the highest priority was a consensus among both the people and the government.

Such a focus not only eased the nation through a peaceful transition to democracy, but also pushed its economy to become one of the leading four in Asia at the time.

Even today, economic development is still high on the agenda for Taiwan’s government.

However, there seems to have been a gradual transition in the recent decade, as people began to value things beyond just prosperity.

More specifically, many began pressuring the government to start regulating businesses when the operation of these firms were infringing upon peoples’ rights to have a good quality of life.

Among other things, the government enacted people-friendly policies like the creation of functional sidewalks, where vendors are prohibited and illegally parked vehicles would be towed; and to force stores to close earlier.

Just recently, Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) announced plans to toughen regulations on noise.

Many in Taiwan are becoming increasingly irate over the high noise levels found near residential areas (which also happen to be the center of bustling markets and shopping districts).

The number of complaints has risen by 15 percent in one year to some 58,000 in 2011, according to the EPA.

Beginning January of next year, the EPA will not only regulate the maximum allowable volume of noise emitted by homes, businesses and factories, but will also limit the time period when people can make such loud noises.

Due to the mushrooming noise complaints, the government has already shut down hundreds of small businesses that used to occupy one of the most significant and famous night markets in the capital city of Taipei.

The process of clearing out the ‘Shida Night Market’ marked a highly controversial event during the past summer, prompting emotional responses throughout the island both against and in favor of the government enforcement on noise regulation.

Night markets are one of the most culturally significant and interesting features of Taiwan. Nearly every day from just after sunset to after midnight, hundreds of night markets in Taiwan would be bustling with people and vendors selling inexpensive clothes, food, games and all kinds of merchandise.

These street fairs happen on a daily basis, with thousands of people packed in one narrow street, yelling and haggling for different reasons. While the night markets are usually fun for both local Taiwanese and traveling tourists, they also cause severe disturbances to people living in the apartment units above the night market.

“The noise doesn't stop when they shut down, because the shop owners chat with each other until 03:00,” local resident John Lin told BBC.

“Then the cleanup people they've hired make noise until 04:00. They're followed by the government's own garbage collectors who make noise for another hour. You cannot live and you cannot sleep.”

After months of negotiations, the government has finally begun to clear off the space at the night markets, even at the expense of closing down a major tourist attraction.

Most of the regulations used to clear the night market were not new. They had been drafted and approved years ago, but the government has always been reluctant to enforce the strict laws as they would hurt business.

Yet, noises in the cities do not just end at these night markets.

The never-ending construction noises in the compact urban spaces of Taiwan also make many residents unhappy. Some of these construction projects are managed by the city government to build new Metro stations, among other infrastructure, while others are private businesses or families remodeling their offices or apartments.

While the EPA tries to implement new rules to lower the discomfort of too much noise, there is very little that can be done, given the fact that construction is necessary for the cities’ continued development.

At the very core, however, Taiwanese citizens still are very concerned about the state’s economic health.

Although the 4.31 percent unemployment rate in Taiwan is not as high as that of the United States, the effect of the global economic downturn is heavily felt by the people. Many college- and even PhD graduates have difficulties finding jobs that match their skill levels.

“I think there is a conflict among the Taiwanese people,” Suzie Liu, 20, a student who lives in Kaohsiung, the second largest city in Taiwan, told this reporter.

“On the one hand, many Taiwanese people think that the government should be doing more to boost the nation’s economy. But when the government is actually pushing towards the expansion of tourism, they start to complain about the disadvantages brought by those changes.”

She added: “I think that the government is in a really tough position. Frankly, it’s quite impossible to balance between meeting the people’s economic needs and their desired living standard….. Noise is part of the deal for a prosperous city. Without noise, how can we get ‘busy’?”

Indeed, limiting businesses would ultimately bring harm to the larger economy, which, of course, the people depend upon.

Taiwan will thus have to struggle with balancing the requirements of business and the people’s needs, given the limited amount of land and space that it can occupy.

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