2014-11-13

Mapping How Cities Smell, Block By Block

Sight is just the most obvious way to navigate a city. Your nose is also constantly being stimulated. What do you know about your city’s "smellscape"?

We map most aspects of cities these days, but some senses are better catered to than others. We have a lot of visual documentation (see Google Street View) but much less for how things sound and smell.

Kate McLean, who created these "smell maps" for six cities, wants us to take odor more seriously. "Smells have stories and connect with us at an emotional level, bringing back memories of locations, events, and people," she says.

"Smell maps are designed to provoke a response, to initiate a debate, to encourage people to use their noses, to become more aware of the smells that go to make up our urban environments."

McLean, who lectures at Canterbury Christ Church University, in the U.K., is one of several "sensory researchers" incorporating smell in their work.

Victoria Henshaw, at Manchester University, wants us to identify "smellmarks"—the olfactory equivalent of landmarks—and bring smell into the planning process.

"In acknowledging what smells exist within our towns and cities, we’re in a stronger position to think about these as a potential positive contributor to our experiences of cities and the way we remember and think about them," she says.

"We might use this information to protect important smells in our cities, to plan the 'smellscape’ of particular public spaces, or to draw attention to different physical, temporal or historical characteristics of a particular place."

Henshaw is publishing a book on urban smellscapes that’s appearing later this year.

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