Smellscapes

If one travels a lot, you start to realize that places have certain unique smells. Whether it be suffocating smog in New Delhi or blissful Jasmine in Florence, places often leave particular olfactory memories. Working in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in the late 1990’s, we were beset with a confusing melange of the pancakey delightful smell from what we assumed was the Tastykake factory, sometimes mingled with the waste treatment plant’s noxiousness, and occasionally the horrific fumes of the fiberglass plant that moved in next door.

Smells, even good ones have caused concerns when the source is unknown, like the mysterious maple syrup smell that wafted into Manhattan from New Jersey. Smoking is certainly a contentious issue and the ban in bars and restaurants has forced smokers out onto sidewalks which nearby neighbors often dislike since the fumes can waft into their homes. The Atlantic had an interesting article on how smells are often a determining factor in how people mingle in public spaces, with smoking, body odor, etc… being a big determining factor in how people congregate.

Check out sensorymaps.com to see more lovely maps of smells.

Kate McLean appears to be the current expert on mapping smells. Smell mapping fascinates me because, well it involves maps, but also because smell maps are much more likely to change quickly. Seasons, winds, and business changes can change a smellscape very quickly! Also smells are closely related to memories, so smell maps are like collective memory maps. Places, memories, and smells being tied together triggers both good and bad reactions: I get hungry every time I think about a particular subway stop which has an exit near my favorite Italian Deli when the remembered aroma of homemade tomato sauce pops into my head, yet I cringe anytime someone mentions the 6th Ave stop on the F train, because it has continuously smelt like urine for at least 15 years.

Kate McLean’s approach is to visualizing the smells around us is great at getting people to think about cities in different ways, but I found Victoria Henshaw’s blog post and video (below) to be much more illuminating for planners. It also made the bubblegum-smelling cleaning fluids used now in subways make more sense, and made me think that park designers and landscape architects must (I hope) think about smellscapes much more than the rest of us. It also reminds me of what an Urban Design professor once said: that the mark of a really well thought-out site plan is the incorporation of waste disposal and storage in appropriate locations. Victoria has also done a series of smellwalks, which is a sort of olfactory tour of a place. Smells have been a side-affect of architecture, urban design and land use, but Victoria has urged us to think of smells differently, and remember that even bad smells have their place (fish markets should smell like fish) and that it is hard to gauge whether a smell will be loved or hated – even ‘good’ smells can be disliked if in the wrong place.

Victoria Henshaw: Smell & the City from Integreat Plus on Vimeo.

Featured photo by: Tony Alter, aka Tobyotter on Flickr
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