by Rafi Schwartz
While scent may be the most powerful of our five senses, it’s usually not the one most of us think of when it comes to how we navigate our way through cities both familiar and foreign.
Save for instances when we get a nose-full of some extreme scent both good (roasting coffee, fresh cut grass) or bad (hot garbage, pee), we probably don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about the role our olfactory glands play in our day-to-day lives.
As it happens, though, our sense of smell can actually play a significant role in our spacial understanding of urban centers. Now, thanks to artist, designer, and informational experience design Ph.D candidate Kate McLean, we can begin to fully explore just how our noses shape our understanding of the cities in which we live.
McLean heads the team behind Smelly Maps, a new project that blends cartography, urban planning, and social media to present cities as we’ve never seen—or smelled—them before.
McLean’s maps, created with the help of researchers Daniele Quercia, Luca Maria Aiello, and Rossano Schifanella, began with walking tours around seven cities across Europe and the United States, during which participants took notes on the various smells they inhaled along the way. For two cities, London and Barcelona, those notes were then cross-indexed with geo-specific social media tags culled from Twitter and Flickr, and used to create an “Urban Smell Dictionary” consisting of nearly three hundred scent terms from “abattoir” to “zoo.”
Per the Smelly Maps homepage:
The researchers found that the high-level olfactory footprint of Barcelona and London consists of nature and, alas, traffic emissions. At street level, streets with emissions words (e.g., Kensington Road and Park Lane in London) suffer from air pollution, while streets with nature words (e.g., Hyde Park) do not. Where do you expect to find animal smells? In the zoo, of course.
In other words, those city’s smells broke down, broadly, into two camps: Flora/Fauna and car exhaust.
Using their collected data, McLean’s team then created the project’s titular Smelly Maps—graphic representations of what smells can be found where in the cities researched.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the scent cartography collected by McLean’s team ended up syncing well with existing air purity data, explained researcher Daniele Quercia to PSFK. There, he also touched on some of the project’s possible applications in terms of urban planning, saying:
Researchers need to study all types of smells – not only bad odors (as they typically do) but also pleasurable ones. If they were to do that, there would be a number of ways that the urban smellscape could be altered. A few examples include changing the street layout (to modify the air flow), pedestrianization (to lower traffic emissions), and planting trees (to create restorative environments).
While we’re probably never going to fully turn our sense of urban navigation over to a smell-based system (“Head down 7th and take a right when you smell begonias and dog poop”), the Smelly Maps project offers a unique way to think about our cities. Through McLean’s work—the Smelly Maps themselves, as well as her previous forays into sense-based spacial experience—we examine cities not only as collections of sights and sounds, but as places where the nose knows more than we might otherwise expect.
You can learn more about Smelly Maps on its homepage, and in “Smelly Maps: The Digital Life of Urban Smellscapes,” the scientific paper written for the project.