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Inside voices Activists fight for children’s right to be noisy

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Children express themselves at Basel's carnival

Children express themselves at Basel's carnival

(Keystone)

The sound of children at play may be heart-warming for some but in Switzerland, where one in six residents suffers from harmful noise levels, children’s noise is a regular cause for complaint. The issue is beginning to make political waves.

Last year, Germany changed the law to protect children’s noise and put an end to a wave of legal complaints against playgrounds and day care centres. Swiss campaigners are now calling for a similar reform in Switzerland.

The organisation that has brought the issue to broader attention is the Zurich umbrella group of youth and children’s professionals Okaj. Following a conference last November it issued a call for the legal protection of children’s noise.

“We who are involved in youth and children’s work wish to see public spaces being considered as educational spaces,” Ivica Petrusic of Okaj told swissinfo.ch.

“What happens in these spaces is essential to the whole development of children and young people. This is where they learn how society works, how to behave, how to learn boundaries,” he added.

Petrusic said he and his colleagues felt it was important to finally take a position on this issue against a backdrop of increasing intolerance.

“Every conflict that comes up in a public space is always seen so negatively and it is mostly children and young people who suffer under that. They are expelled, they have curfews imposed on them, with under 16s no longer allowed out after 10pm. We find that a worrying development.”

Night curfews for under 16s or under 14s are in place in numerous Swiss towns and districts, including Kehrsatz and Interlaken in canton Bern, Zurzach in Aargau and the city of Biel.

Question time

Meanwhile two members of Zurich cantonal parliament, Philipp Kutter of the centre-right Christian Democrats and Johannes Zollinger of the Evangelical Party, recently submitted a detailed question to the government of the canton asking whether children’s play was being adequately protected.

“Children and adolescents are being forced out of public spaces and expelled from their meeting points and playgrounds,” Kutter and Zollinger claimed in their joint submission.

“Children are … being restricted more and more in their recreational activities. Playgrounds are being closed in the evening, legal measures are used to forbid or restrict the football on playing fields.”

The local politicians were referring in part to the case in Wädenswil, canton Zurich. A recent court decision there upheld a noise complaint from local residents and ruled that the football goals in a local school yard at weekends had to be kept in place with chains in such a way as to keep the children from playing close to the nearby houses.

No change possible

The written response from the Zurich government last month (February) concluded that no change to the status quo was possible.

Pointing out that noise protection law also applies to young people’s meeting points and playgrounds, the cantonal government said a legal regulation under which children’s noise would no longer be qualified as disturbing could not be passed at a cantonal level.

Petrusic sees a contradiction at work. “On the one hand we want a healthier lifestyle for children to combat obesity. We want more active young people but when it comes to being active the adults decide the limits.”

The spring effect

At this time of year, people of all ages begin to spend more time outdoors and noise officials in cantonal environment offices brace themselves for a deluge of noise complaints. Featuring regularly among those disturbances is children’s noise, as Markus Chastonay of Cercle Bruit, the association of cantonal noise protection experts, told swissinfo.ch.

“In the past we had a lot of industry noise issues but now there are many more problems from residential areas. In Switzerland the lowlands are like a great big city. We live closer and closer together and people are less understanding,” said Chastonay, who works for Solothurn environment office.

Stefan Ritz, child and youth representative for Dübendorf, on the edge of Zurich, said in a recent interview with the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper that it had become “practically impossible” to build new playgrounds.

“People move heaven and earth to block them. Often they have no sympathy,” Ritz said. To overcome this problem, Dübendorf has bought a bus which operates as a mobile playground in the summer.

Under environmental protection law, playgrounds are amenities, which means noise coming from them has to be limited as far as possible. But there are no set limits which can be measured and enforced. Where a legal dispute arises, judgments are made on a case-by-case basis.

The legal position

Different regulations apply to different types of noise.

Noise from amenities such as churches, playgrounds and bottle banks are covered by environmental protection law and the noise protection decree applies. But maximum limits are not necessarily applied here. There are only limits for air, train and road traffic, industry and shooting ranges.

The rule for all other amenities is that  they should not cause considerable disturbance to the population. Judgments made on a case-by-case basis.

Article 684 of the civil code protects neighbours from harmful and nuisance noise. Again it must be decided on a case-by-case basis whether the noise is harmful or causing a nuisance.

Some local police or communes have introduced regulations setting down so-called “quiet times”. During these hours (usually at night or lunchtime) protection from noise is increased.

(Source: Larm.ch)

end of infobox

Complaints

According to Caroline Märki-von Zeerleder of the family therapy organisation Familylab, the problem comes down to different needs and the relationship between the generations.

“It’s a fact that children play loudly and it’s a fact that many older people prefer peace and quiet.  Both are OK but they don’t go together.  We can only find a solution through dialogue based on mutual respect.”

But this dialogue is not taking place often enough,  Märki-von Zeerleder added.  In cases of conflict she has observed a lack of willingness on the part of older people to adapt their approach to children. “They have the attitude that because they are older, they have the authority and children have to obey. Then they meet resistance from the new generation because it doesn’t work like that anymore nowadays.”

Some disputes make the headlines locally – like the small Montessori school in Zug, its expansion plans put on hold because of neighbours’ objections to noise levels – but most of the everyday battles over children’s noise go unheard.

There is a saying in German which, it would seem, many Swiss no longer agree with: ‘Kinderlärm ist Zukunftsmusik’ – children’s noise is the music of the future.

Noise burden

A 2010 national study on noise found that:

420,000 people were in workplaces in the direct vicinity of disturbing noise levels.

600,000 apartments were strongly exposed to noise.

1.3 million people suffered from harmful noise levels.

Noise pollution was rated one of the country’s biggest environmental problems.

(Source: Empa)

end of infobox

swissinfo.ch


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