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Smell the city!


The sense of smell plays an important role in our perception of space and places, and the better we understand this relationship, the closer we come to designing liveable cities. Iva Radić-Capuani from adelphi had the honor to speak with Kate McLean, one of the most renowned smellscape researchers.


Why and when you become interested in exploring city smells?


My interest in exploring and mapping city smellscapes lies is because smell is a double invisible sense and I wanted to call attention to its existence in the sensory order and contribution to understandings of space and place. My first work in this area was in 2010 when I was studying at Edinburgh College of Art. 


In 2010 you had an exhibition in Edinburgh on the smellscapes of Paris, for which you created a series of different odors distinctive to the city. Tell us about your preparations, the exhibition itself and what you found out. 


Back in 2010, I asked Parisians what the typical smells of their city were. Based on this I made a series of different aromas summarizing the different aspects of Parisian life in various neighbourhoods. It was kitchen chemistry; I looked up how to extract and capture odours and found out that oils, alcohol, and water work well. It was a lot of fun, extremely exploratory and experimental. For example, to get the smell of fresh bread, I would bake a baguette every morning. While the loaf was still hot I broke the crust open and put it in a plastic bag with a piece of black velvet. For the exhibition I removed the velvet from the bread and placed it in a small jar; the velvet held the smell for about 24 hours before I had to repeat the process.

I thought it would be quite light-hearted, fun, and that I would end up with the names of towns and cities. Instead, quite the opposite happened.



The exhibition had 14 different odours in jars and I asked visitors to write down a location and an emotion that they associated with the different smells that were on display. Interestingly, their reactions and answers were completely different from what I had expected. I thought it would be quite light-hearted, fun, and that I would end up with the names of towns and cities. Instead, quite the opposite happened. People were incredibly reflective and quiet. They would generally sniff three times at each smell – trying to understand it before formulating their thoughts. Their individual responses were personal and poignant. For example, I had a smell of Gauloises cigarettes, and somebody in response wrote: “I am standing on the railway platform, it’s late at night and really cold. Further down the platform somebody is smoking a cigarette“. 


At this point I realised there is something really interesting in terms of the personal associations that we have with smell. Which means generalisations about the nature of smell experience concerning cities and environments are flawed. 

Methods for making planning and participation more sensory

Emotions and sensory perception play hardly any role in the planning and design of cities and in the debate about the urban future. According to popular opinion, decision-making needs an “objective process”. Of all the senses, only the visual, the shaping of the urban form, is treated as something special because it is easy to grasp and communicate. But people experience the city emotionally and with all their senses—not just with the naked eye.

So if we want to design cities that focus more on people, on their needs and well-being, we cannot ignore these dimensions of experience. We need a sensory approach to both planning and participation processes in order to achieve a humane and ecologically sustainable future.

How we can make this happen is being elaborated on in the Methodology Profile. The individual steps were developed, tested and combined into a systematic methodology in the context of the Sense the City project. They build on each other and can be applied in different contexts and for different fields of action.

The city as an expanding forest


The future city is curvy and borderless; it breathes in the rhythm of nature.  



Tuning into our senses, we realize that what we want is the smell of grass rather than the smell of car exhaust. We want freshness, tranquillity and nature. Our vision for the urban future is green, not grey.

The only restraints are imposed by nature and the wilderness. 

We have been shaping nature to fit our needs in such a way that it has become almost impossible to find untouched greenery in most of today’s metropolises. Like a virus, humans have been dominating and degrading nature. This has gone on for long enough. Now it is time for nature to strike back.


The first step would be to replace the current concept of urban planning with one that follows the natural flow of forests and other greenery. No more rigid grid plans or pre-set city borders. The only restraints are imposed by nature and the wilderness. Whenever they expand, the city expands correspondingly. We want to free the cities from the ever-present rationality and introduce emotionality. We want to break the grid.


To depict and communicate this natural flow, our buildings should have curvy shapes without any edges. We associate edgy corners with borders, and we do not want any boundaries. We want people to feel free when walking around the city.



Taking a different walk through Pescara

What happens when we consciously engage with our city? Let’s turn off the autopilot and turn on the senses. Is the city surprising? Is it overwhelming? Repelling or attractive? In any case, the urban environment moves us and it becomes clear what does us good and what doesn’t, and what we want more or less of. A good basis, therefore, from which urban planning can learn. 


Dear diary,

It’s hot in Pescara today, at last! I go downstairs, open the building door, and immediately, a violent wave of noises greets me good morning. The traffic in Pescara is intense. Limiting the amount of cars in the street where I live would be a great improvement. I decide to head to the historic centre, which seems to be in a separate bubble.


When I touch the brick walls, I can feel the sweat and ingenuity of the medieval workers.

As I am about to cross, I see in the distance the traffic light turn green. I manage to cross just in time before the sound of a truck rings in my ear and exhaust gas fills my lungs. I take a few more steps and there I am, standing in front of corso Manthonè. As I enter the street, human voices substitute the machine noises – it’s fantastic.

I feel like I’m in the middle of History: I walk on a fifteenth century pavement that almost makes me lose my balance. When I touch the brick walls, I can feel the sweat and ingenuity of the medieval workers.


The streets are narrow and long, but here, I feel more secure than in those exaggeratedly large streets outside. Here, I do not feel the layer of hot air that stagnates in other urban areas. But the historical centre is small and very soon, I find myself outside of this protected area again. The air is hot and humid, noises loud in my ears.

Who will sing the songs of the trees?




In 2050, two thirds of the population will live in cities.



Who will then sing the songs of the trees?


Who will listen to the messages of the rivers and lakes?


And who will seek the Southern Cross in the night sky?



The rustling of rats in the garbage will be precious to us.



Reminiscence of days gone by.

Dare to be more sensuous!

In the year 1969, Willy Brandt used his opening government statement to declare that the motto of his chancellorship would be “Dare more Democracy!”. He thereby took up the calls for more democratic participation and social change made by the protest movement that had emerged in the 1960s and reached its high point in 1968. Today, in times of populism, nationalism and the return of authoritarian ideologies, it is vital to defend democratic achievements and dare even more democracy.


To achieve this, it is crucial to have as many people as possible participate in the discourse around collective opinion-forming and decision-making processes – this applies in particular to planning processes for sustainable urban development. For shaping the future, the broadest possible participation is a necessary condition. But participation in of itself is not sufficient. This is also about systematically including dimensions of experience that are as diverse as possible. While from the late 1960s participation research and practice focused on the negotiation of values, interests, and knowledge claims – and designed participation approaches and procedures accordingly – sensual-aesthetic aspects and (felt) imaginations were not routinely dealt with. This “sensuality deficit” is problematic.

There is a “sensuality deficit” in participation research and practice.


Interdisciplinary insights from neuropsychology, philosophy and social sciences emphasize the importance of multisensory, bodily perception for human action. They conceptualize atmospheres as emotionally attuned spaces characterized as shared reality by the palpable presence of the perceived and the sensual-emotional experience of the perceiver. They use art-based methods to open up horizons of knowledge beyond cognitive-logical approaches. The time seems ripe to proclaim a supplementary motto in the style of Brandt: dare to be more sensuous!

Thinking, feeling, and doing in the post-growth city

With its conference “Post-Growth City”, the Bauhaus University-Weimar demonstrates how sensory approaches can find their way into sustainability research. At the two-day event, more than 300 people from science, civil society, and politics drew up a manifesto on how to design urban spaces and societies beyond the imperative of growth. Dr Friederike Landau explains to us what role sense and emotion played in the process.


Why did you make “feeling” a central component of your conference?


In the preparatory meeting for the Conference on the Post-Growth City, we discussed what will stick with the participants the day after the conference. What do people think and feel after spending a day and a half contemplating new practices for living, working, housing? Are they motivated and eager to act? Do they feel discouraged, completely unsure of where to begin with the necessary yet fundamental changes in behavior? In order to capture this mood at the end of the conference, we developed three pillars of the manifesto for the post-growth city: thinking, feeling, and doing. On the whole, for us the idea and the term “manifesto” were about doing something proclamatory, about putting down a foundation for urban cities and making demands for how cities could look and feel in a post-growth society.


The thinking component was supposed to combine scientific arguments and activist practices in order to make tangible abstract concepts like solidarity, sufficiency (i.e. low consumption of resources and energy), community, or responsibility. In the doing category, we wanted to collect concrete instructions for action and tips for everyday life. In this way we hoped to create a toolbox for the creation of post-growth cities, in order to build these futures together.

Find a partner and cupola up! An idea for more community in Mannheim

Mannheim is colorful, diverse, and accessible by river – framed by the Rhein and the Neckar rivers on both sides of the city. There’s no shortage of water, but there could certainly be more places where you can meet other people and discuss with them. At least that was the opinion of a few Mannheimers. They came up with idea of how to change that: a small cupola that can have a big impact. 


This cupola, this dome, should stand in the middle of the old measuring site. You have to imagine it as an inflatable, transparent balloon that can be enlarged or shrunk at will. Just in the form of a cupola. We definitely want it to be oval and without corners, so that it stands out from the often angular architectural landscape.


It should create space for encounters and exchanges between people from different background and of all ages. The cupola is basically there for coupling up. It should be a meeting place to pass to the time, without distractions from outside or the pressure to consume anything. So that all Mannheimers can enjoy themselves, we’d like to send them on a journey. They should wander – from district to district and perhaps at some point from city to city. Our vision is that there will eventually be so many of these cupolas that the squares and roofs will be dotted with small hills. The Mannheimers should decide for themselves what they discuss in the cupolas. Through an app, they can vote on discussion topics as well as how exactly the cupolas should be used. Anything is possible, from educational spaces to citizens’ forums.


So that people can see what is going on in the cupola from the outside, it should be made out of a semi-transparent material. For the interior we’d like a soft, fluffy floor. It should resemble a mossy surface and invite you to lie or sit down. We don’t want any stuffy, seated events here. And it should smell like nature and the forest – simply natural. That helps people relax. 


The cupola will also have its own sound for calling meetings, like the church bells for Christians or the Muezzin for Muslims. We envision a sound from nature, maybe a rain drop. Whatever it is, it should appeal to people regardless of their religion or origin.

Welcome to The Day After Tomorrow

Have you always asked yourself how young adults imagine their city in the future? Then come with us to the day after tomorrow. We’ll give you a tour through the city and some first impressions.


Good morning in The Day After Tomorrow. I hope you had a pleasant journey. My. Name is Naika Bastaw and I am delighted to be your tour guide for the day. For several years now I have worked at Urban Sensory Studio, a planning office that was heavily involved in the development and implementation of The Day After Tomorrow. The city is in many respects an experiment, a lived utopia so to speak. Its architectural, sensory, and social profile has little in common with the images and ideas that people at the beginning of the 21st century had of the city of the future. You will soon find out exactly what I mean.


Before I forget: next week, on April 30, 2050, the city will celebrate its first anniversary. You are of course all cordially invited to join us. We are proud that The Day After Tomorrow already feels natural and alive today – not as if it were designed on a drawing broad. One reason for that is the unusual approach that we chose. From the very beginning, we worked with residents to visualize how their city should sound, smell, and feel. For us, functionality and efficiency were not paramount. No, we wanted a city that served all of the human senses.


Let’s start the tour

But that’s enough history. Let’s start our tour. We are standing on the central square, Protinus, near the business district of Diversitas. Does anything stand out to you? “Yes, the whole neighborhood is covered with natural soil,” one participant remarks hesitantly. That’s right. “And some even walk barefoot to work,” an older gentleman adds, somewhat irritated. That is correct. It was important to the inhabitants to establish a new relationship between man and nature. They wanted a soft, natural surface, not typical hard asphalt. So we opted for a variety of grass, cork, and forest soils – depending on use.

Photo competition: “Urban Visions of the Future”

The world of tomorrow will be an urban one. By the year 2050, more than three-quarters of humanity will live in cities. Grey, hard, laud, and fast-paced: those are the big cities of today. But how do we want to live in the future? What should the city of the future look like? Which criteria must it meet in order to be perceived as a social space?


Cities are considered the cause of but also the solution to today’s economic, social, and environmental challenges. In recent years the international community has adopted pioneering resolutions with relevance for urban actors. The New Urban Agenda was adopted as a global roadmap for cities, and the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development and the Paris climate agreement also foresee cities playing an important role in the transformation to a sustainable future. 



Time for visions of the future from the people for the people

Nevertheless, we still lack a clear vision for the cities we want to live in in the future. And yet positive visions are so important, especially in times of upheaval, because they spread confidence and motivate us to actively shape change. As part of its drive to show how different people imagine future urban development and cities, adelphi invited photographic artists and photographers from around the world to creatively engage with the issue.


Hundreds of submissions from around the world were evaluated by a jury consisting of Franziska Schreiber (Urban Development Specialist, adelphi), Henning Lohner (Sound designer, film composer, video artist), Joy Baldo (UN SDSN Local Pathways Fellow, ICLEI), Maarten Hajer (Director Urban Futures Studio, Utrecht University) and Soazic Guézennec (visual artist). The winner was Jorge López Muñoz of Spain. Second place was shared by Baudouin Mouanda of the Republic of Congo and Beatriz Montes of Spain.


Sense the City kick-off at Z2X18

The starting gun for the Sense the City project sounded in September 2018 at the Z2X Festival in Berlin. Every year, the ZEIT ONLINE-managed Festival brings together young visionaries with the goal of jointly developing ideas for the future that make the world a little bit better.


A good opportunity, we thought, to speak with young thought leaders about their visions for the city of the future. It quickly became clear that we aren’t the only ones who find the topic important, and there was a lot to discuss – all the seats in the vision workshop we offered were taken in a flash. We took the more than thirty participants, aged 20-29, on a vision journey to the city 2050+ and developed three different prototypes for desirable urban futures.


Full of fantasy, these models for the city of the future had a quality that simply blew us away. They showed once again: if you give people space to ponder and express their wishes for the future, they quickly produce something astonishing. In just an hour, the participants created urban futures diametrically opposed to the standard images from urban planning or science fiction. They dreamed of natural soil for walking barefoot, wood as the dominant building material, and a wide array of architectural styles. Of an atmosphere characterized by natural color and warm light – as if it were always sunset. Of a rhythm that is calm but not still, of a bit more chaos in the city, just no disorder. They dreamed of cities free from advertisement, with playgrounds standing ready for adults. Another intriguing element was how all the models tried to dissolve the dichotomy between city and countryside.


At the conclusion of the conference, Sense the City was selected by the Z2X Jury as one of the ten most promising ideas out of the more than 100 on offer. For that, a great big thank you – we couldn’t have imagined a better start.


“The future belongs to these ideas” – a nice article by ZEIT ONLINE editor Marlon Schröder about Sense the City at Z2X can be found HERE.


Happy Owners – a surreal real estate company with alternative visions for the future of cities

In 2013 Soazic Guèzennec founded the real estate company “Happy Owners” – a surreal agency that makes the language and codes of the property sector its own in order to promote a poetic and political vision of the city. 


The starting point of this work was the discrepancy between the vision of a green city left over to nature, like that marketed by real estate advertisements in India, and the brutal reality. Soazic Guèzenne read the slogans and took the property marketers at their word, developing architectural projects in which nature would assert itself in a poetic and at times even violent fashion. The result was designs where buildings become waterfalls, mushrooms infiltrate the city, or mountains fall from the sky like the landscape’s prosthetics. To convey these utopias in a believable way, the firm used classic real estate strategies and media – videos, brochures, blueprints, models, promotional posters, and a room that imitates a business environment. 


Thanks to the support of Columbia University, Soazic Guèzenne has now opened 10 branches in India, Turkey, and Germany, presented the project to various architectural schools and design fairs, and taken part in the 2018 exhibition “Habitarum” in the French Museum La Condition Publique. Each of these real estate agencies takes into account the local context and seeks to lay the groundwork for the emergence of new forms. 

How we can design timeless cities for our collective future

Newly built cities and neighborhoods look so similar all over the world that you could easily mix them up. The charm and beauty that so captivates us in cities like Rom, Fez or Jaipur has, in the eyes of architect Vishaan Chakrabarti, been lost in a world of increasing mass production, regulation, and cost considerations.


So that the growing cities of the 21st century can flourish, he calls in his TED talk for us to allow the local to more strongly influence urban planning, And not just for aesthetic reasons, but also for collective, social, and psychic well-being.  His vision: lyrical cities that reflect differing cultural and climate conditions as well as the diversity of their residents – cities that pick up global innovations in order to adapt them for local needs.

Sense the City. The future city in transition

Most cities today are characterized by the past, culture, heterogeneity, planning or non-planning, political systems, financial possibilities, and above all the people that live and work there. Cities are subject to permanent change, sometimes easy to influence, sometimes not.


This change interests us. We call for an open city along the lines suggested by Richard Sennets, a city in which change is seen as enriching (without negating the past), in which incompleteness and openness is welcome (in order to open room for maneuver), contradictions are allowed, and diversity is desired (without disconcerting people).


In order to positively influence and shape change, it is essential to have close cooperation between planners and residents. Open discussion is lived democracy; it creates trust, identity, and ultimately a homeland. A homeland in a changing, complex society, which is capable of resisting populism and dictatorship.


We won’t claim that it’s easy. A watchful eye, a good nose, an instinctive and delicate touch, an open ear, and a high degree of communication are all required to shape a city with all the senses. That’s what we should work on.


We don’t need megacities; we need an “Internet of Spaces”

Why tiny houses could herald a new era of urban planning. A plea for rethinking city planning by Van Bo Le-Mentzel


At the moment, everyone is talking about the Internet of Things: the networking of disparate areas is making possible new systems and functions. For example, self-driving vehicles work because cars, traffic lights, and street maps are connected to each other. For that, though, we need a new understanding of citizenship. And that’s exactly where Tiny Houses come into play.

„I dream of an internet of spaces, a linkage of public spaces.“


What would the world look like if one temporarily set up tiny house villages on all public squares and connected them to each other? To be sure, tiny houses on wheels are no alternative to conventional homes or apartments. After all, they are only 10 square meters in size. But this is about more than just compact living. For the way in which they are built and used could perhaps provide the basis for the democratization of urban planning.


How it all started

It initially began with the California artist Jay Shafer asking himself what would be left over from a house if you took out everything that was superfluous. When I myself developed the One-Sqm House in 2012, I couldn’t anticipate that one day a movement would develop out of it that made into the mainstream. There are an estimated 100 tiny houses in Germany. None is higher than 2.55 meters because the traffic regulations want it that way. And none is higher than 4 meters because the bridges want it that way.


The European tiny house movement began about four years ago. There is now a tiny house scene in nearly every European country – above all in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Germany. Even IKEA recently developed kitchens and lighting for tiny houses. A tiny house costs 50,000 euros on average. So we’re not talking here about a peripheral phenomenon of a few houses, but rather a movement of the middle class.

Dare to size the future – A plea for bold visions

The 100 year anniversary of Bauhaus comes at exactly the right time. Under the motto “Thinking the World Anew”, it offers an ideal opportunity to build on the pioneering spirit and eagerness to experiment of the Bauhäusler and breathe new life into the current discourse on the city of the future. For the design school, as a laboratory for visionary ideas and a melting pot for utopians of every description, was constantly striving to explore new ways of thinking – both methodically and conceptually.

From visionary baubles to the “post-utopian” era?


There’s not much left today of the visionary energy of the years from the 1920s to the 1960s. Rather than experimenting with radical city utopias and visions of the future, we are experiencing a certain pragmatism and pessimism when it comes to the future. Again and again we hear that the 21st century is a “post-utopian” era. (Pinder 2002).


Admittedly, most of the ideas and utopias developed at that time, like Archigram’s Walking City or the futuristic imagery of Klaus Kürgle, were never realized. Yet they did create new perspectives and tap into new possibilities, new spaces for thinking. People were thinking big, far removed from the prevailing conventions. But above all, they thought positively and awakened a desire for the future. This optimistic way of looking forward and openness to alternative futures is absent today. Instead of visions full of fantasy that give impetus to society, the focus in many places is on addressing current problem areas. We hardly ask ourselves what we want for the future and how we want to live then.


What are the reasons for this disenchantment with the future? In his book “Utopias for Realists” (2017), Rutger Bregman argues that we are simply doing so well that we can’t imagine a better future. But it’s not just that. The growing complexity of global challenges also increasingly triggers a feeling that there is a lack of prospects, a hopelessness that is possible to counter with positivity only with great effort (see Beck 2016; Bude 2016). Now, in the face of these overwhelming demands, one can of course completely come undone—but that doesn’t help.