The evidence is compelling. It’s also completely anecdotal.
Scott Caldwell remembers the first time he heard the sound. It was a sickening, shrill whine, piercing through the background burble in the plaza by the Auckland Council building entrance on Federal St. He was suffering a migraine within seconds, and had to evacuate down an escalator into the council’s lobby. The only relief came as he rode past thick concrete pillars.
Oscar Sims was with Caldwell at the time. He remembers the sound as an “ear-splitting screech”. It rang out at a “highly punishing” pitch near the edge of his hearing, and quickly became intolerable for him as well. Both he and Caldwell struggled to determine which direction the noise was coming from. “The sound is simply all-encompassing,” says Caldwell.
Both Sims and Caldwell are members of the Coalition For More Homes, and they were at council to talk housing with newly elected Whau councillor Kerrin Leoni. Auckland Council has a long history of antagonism toward anyone wanting homes to be built, particularly in the central suburbs where construction would make the most sense. It’s conceivable it would install a noise weapon to shoo away anyone who wants apartments in Grey Lynn. But in this case, Sims and Caldwell believe a different group is being targeted. Both are 25 years old. They’re convinced the council is operating an ultrasonic device aimed at repelling young people from its premises.
There’s precedent for the use of noise weapons in New Zealand. In 2016, the Papanui library in Christchurch was heavily criticised for installing “Mosquito” speakers, which emit a pulsing sound at a frequency only audible to people whose hearing hasn’t been dulled by the ravages of age.
Circumstantial evidence points to Auckland Council employing a similar strategy. While Sims and Caldwell were quickly incapacitated by the noise at its Federal St entrance, Stuff reporter Todd Niall, a regular council visitor who identifies as getting older, has never heard the sound.
I’m 37 years old. When I went to visit the Federal St plaza on a clear day in late-March, the sound was audible, though more a mildly nauseating irritation than an overwhelming screech. Just like Caldwell, I found it hard to figure out where it was coming from. It swam in and out of earshot as I walked. But a potential culprit was visible: some large dome-shaped speakers scattered around the plaza. The speakers appear to be emblazoned with the brand name “Toa”, which matches the name of an electronics company. Its website advertises a range of speakers, including several ceiling-mounted models with a “wide frequency range” – presumably perfect for broadcasting ear-splitting shrieks at groups of loitering teens and otherwise grotty youths.
Auckland Council denies it’s purposely driving youth to madness and despair with an audio assault device. Its statement to The Spinoff says it investigated the noise several years ago after concerns were raised. That effort pointed to a different source for the sound than the speakers. “In 2019, we worked with our Noise and Air Quality team who brought a special noise frequency analyser to site, and via process of elimination we identified a high frequency noise coming from the escalator when it was in operation,” it says. “The source of the noise was a component that was slightly out of alignment in one of the escalators on the Albert Street side and we assessed that metal components rubbing caused the high frequency sound. We believe this may be the case now, and will investigate to see what we can do to remedy the situation.”
Richard Hills, a North Shore councillor who’s young in local government terms, says he doesn’t believe his own organisation. “Corporate property keeps telling me the speakers aren’t working and haven’t been in use since before we owned the building,” he says. “BUT I CAN HEAR IT.”
If Hills sounds upset, it’s because the sound has been a source of long-term torment. He’s adamant the sound isn’t coming from the escalator, and says he’s 98% sure he’s heard it at night when the escalator is turned off. Other youth-adjacent council workers have made the same allegation. “I’ve told them before the sound still happens when the escalators are off. It’s been a three year journey for me at least,” Hills says. The issue is a source of such distress for Hills that he wants to take matters into his own hands. “Do you want to get a ladder and smash them down for me?” he asks me, several times. He’s made the same request to council staff.
The case for the council purposely repelling the youth may be compelling, but it’s anecdotal. In an effort to settle the dispute, I enlisted a thirty-something council worker, who asked to remain anonymous, but affirms he has been tortured by the sound for some time. He packed some high quality sound equipment of his own and went to the plaza to take measurements in his break.
The worker wanted to check the noise’s waveforms. Sound from a speaker would create a consistent and predictable reading, while an escalator fault would be intermittent and variable. His results were concerning. The sound’s waveform is extremely regular. Furthermore, it appears to be broadcasting at exactly 14khz. Is it possible for an escalator to produce such a frequency at such an amplitude? “I think it’s extremely unlikely,” he says. “The regularity, and the fact that it’s an exact frequency…”
Unlikely, maybe. But not impossible. In an effort to settle this once and for all, I asked Sims to return to the Federal St plaza after 9pm, when the council escalators are turned off, and see if he can hear the sound. He went one Thursday night, and came to a surprise conclusion: he, Caldwell, Hills, unnamed council workers, and the sine wave are wrong. The plaza was silent apart from sounds from restaurant patrons and casino-goers. In the dark of night, Sims stood at the southern end of Federal St and felt peace for the first time. It appears the escalator is the culprit after all.
It’s shocking to find Auckland Council isn’t actively anti-youth in this one respect. The reason the noise theory seems so convincing is because it aligns with our available data on the council. Young people are absent from many of its processes, right down to the most fundamental functions of local democracy. In 2016, only 20% of eligible Aucklanders in the 26-30 age bracket voted in the local election, while 61% of people aged 76-80 cast a ballot. More recently, Pākehā aged 40 and above were overrepresented in feedback on mayor Wayne Brown’s cost-cutting budget, while Māori, Pasifika, Asian, poorer and younger people didn’t have as much of a say.
Those figures are the product of deliberate decisions. The council’s consultations are inaccessible and its meetings are in the middle of the day. Postal voting favours homeowners, who are more likely to stay in one place long-term, as does the ratepayers roll, which allows people with investment properties to vote in multiple elections. Both Sims and Caldwell feel assailing young people with a painful noise weapon jibes with existing council policy. “This is not an institution that highly values what young people think and feel,” Sims says.
But perversely, those settings may be why the council doesn’t feel the need to broadcast high-pitched shrieking in its entranceways. When it comes to repulsing teens, an ultrasonic noise weapon has nothing on a speech from Wayne Walker. Most young people would rather insert a Mosquito device directly into their right eardrum than fill out a 14-page consultation document on a minor roundabout upgrade in Blockhouse Bay. Auckland’s mayor is 76. He’s younger than most of the people who turn up to town hall meetings. Why would the council bother installing a noise weapon? It’s doing a great job of repelling young people without one.