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Reduce Noise and Traffic Sounds with Landscaping Features

Landscapes are great for aesthetic appeal, but they can also serve more practical purposes, such as reducing ambient noise. When a property backs up to a busy street, rail line, public park or schoolyard, there’s a good chance its occupants will want to subdue the surrounding sound. Luckily, these three landscaping solutions will reduce nearby noise, making your clients’ outdoor spaces the peaceful retreats they envision:

1. Berms
One of the most common, cost-effective ways to absorb noise is to build a berm — or series of berms — between the yard and the sound source. A berm is a 2- to 4-foot-high mound of packed dirt, extended as long as necessary.

Bobbie Schwartz, owner of Bobbie’s Green Thumb, a landscape design company in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and president of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD), says berms should have a gradual slope on each side to prevent erosion. On the berm, she recommends planting trees such as conifers, deciduous shrubs with broad leaves and ground covers with extensive root systems, such as ivy, pachysandra and periwinkle. The berm’s density, combined with these robust plants, can reduce ambient noise a great deal, she says.

In addition, a well-placed berm covered in greenery can be a welcome addition to the landscape design. “They can be really beautiful,” Schwartz says. “You can vary plant textures, forms, shapes and colors.”

2. Hardscaping
Another popular noise-reducing landscape solution is the use of hardscaping. A stone or brick wall, wood fence or series of panels can create privacy and cut down unwanted sound. Schwartz particularly likes the use of panels, as they provide a unique aesthetic that stands out from standard stone walls or fencing.

Several materials can be used, such as teak, cedar, redwood, hammered metal or COR-TEN steel. To complement the surrounding landscape, Schwartz suggests staggering the placement of panels or fencing, and using varied heights and shapes.

An effective two-pronged approach is to build a wall or install panels at the top of a berm. Mary Rosen, president of Garden Rooms, a landscaping company in Northport, N.Y., was recently asked to design and install this solution for a client whose backyard is adjacent to railroad tracks.

“A berm and a wall will reflect noise back at the source and absorb some of it,” she says. Her client chose plant material to camouflage the wall, but Rosen says painting the wall green or black also works.

3. Water Features
Rather than blocking or absorbing unpleasant street noise, it’s possible to muffle it with the more pleasant sound of running water. Landscape water features come in a variety of options, including waterfalls, pond bubblers and fountains.

The type of feature best suited to the landscape depends on the amount of noise the homeowner wants to muffle. The slow, steady drip of a bubbler tends to be more serene, but it reduces less sound than the fast flow of a high waterfall or fountain, Schwartz says.

Following Code
Landscape features that reduce noise are often complex and labor-intensive projects to take on, thanks to the materials used and the extra height that comes with building berms, planting trees, and installing hardscape features and fountains. As such, it’s important to check with your municipality to make sure you’re following zoning codes for height, Schwartz says. As long as you obey local ordinances, your noise-dampening landscape designs are only limited by your creativity.

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