Toggle Mneu

Smell the city!

Smell visualisation workshop NYC, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum event – photo by Ben Hider 2018

You have conducted a number of smellwalks in different urban settings and wrote your doctoral thesis on the practices of smellwalking and smellscape mapping. What did you find out about the relationship between smell and people’s perception of urban space?

 

The smell is both a very localized sense and an incredibly distal sense. Humans perception of smell is both in our immediate environment (if we stick our noses directly in) and also smells travel on the wind from different sources like breweries and factories. Smells are generally named by the source but also associated with specific places and personal memories. Context is all important when it comes to smell encounters. 

 

In addition, very few urban smells are single notes; instead they are complex and layered. In each single breath, you might actually get three completely different odours e.g. minced beef, charcoal and lavender. Furthermore, what you actually experience depends on how high you stand from the ground. 

 

Thirdly, smell is volumetric. We tend to think of it as a single breath, but in terms of a spatial understanding of the city environment, it has a height, a width, a depth. A good analogy is that of cloud-like forms, where smell intensity depends on the concentration of olfactory molecules in that space – think white fluffy clouds versus the very full menacing black clouds. 

 

If you were an urban designer, how would you design a city that was truly enjoyable to live in? What would your liveable city look like? 

My liveable city would maintain and celebrate the variety of smells specific to local environments and would celebrate the planet that we inhabit.

 

My liveable city would maintain and celebrate the variety of smells specific to local environments and would celebrate the planet that we inhabit. Smells refer us the minutae of everyday life; to the food that we grow and eat, the plants that surround us, the materials that we use, and our transportation choices. In my city, fruits and vegetables would be on display without unnecessary packing so that we learn to understand where we are again through what our olfactory sense tells us. 

 

I’m very much in favor of freeing cities from carbon monoxide and diesel fuel which mask other urban smells. I would encourage greater numbers of parks and green spaces incorporating fragrant plants and herbs within the city as points where you can actually stop and rest.