Fragrant Cities – Relationships between smell and urban environments

By Victoria Henshaw, Architecture, School of Environment and Development.

When people hear about my research examining the sense of smell and the city, they frequently question why it might be important that we consider the role of this elusive sense in urban environments. Many go even further, suggesting that we’d be better off if we couldn’t smell the pollution, the rubbish bins, the cigarette smoke or the sewers. At first, such comments used to surprise me, but over time, I’ve come to appreciate these as symptomatic of society’s preoccupation with the way things look (people, environments and objects) and, to a lesser extent, the way they sound. Such views are further reinforced by some of the special characteristics that our sense of smell possesses. I therefore attempt to respond to these comments with a number of key points.

Manchester China Town

First, I highlight that as much as we try and distance ourselves from our inner animality, as human beings we are in fact living, breathing masses of flesh, nerve, muscle, bone, sinew, sense and instinct and as such we rely on all of our senses, and there are many not just the traditional five[1], to come to understand and gain meaning from the world around us. Second, the very way that the sense of smell operates means that it frequently isn’t until people lose their sense of smell that they come to appreciate the important role and influence it has in our everyday lives. I know a philosopher in Barcelona who has congenital anosmia, meaning that she was born without a sense of smell, and she has concluded in her investigations into aesthetic experience that the world ‘is both a less beautiful and a less ugly place without a sense of smell’[2]. In this respect, the sense of smell becomes a quality of life issue and certainly all the evidence I have collected over the years, have supported this idea and indicated that the perception of environments, and their odour, are significantly related.

Thirdly, given its important role in self-preservation, the human sense of smell has a special relationship with memory, allowing us to transport across space and time to people and places often long gone. How many of us have detected smells that have taken us back to childhood memories that we thought long-forgotten? One research participant informed me that the combined odour of a specific perfume with cigarette smoke always reminds her of her mother, now deceased. The same unique combinations of scents are true for places and cities too, stored in the back of our memories for long periods of time for places we have visited in the past, and frequently at the forefront of our consciousness when first visiting unfamiliar territory.

Finally, the study of smell in the urban environment allows us to think about cities, societies and the challenges they face, in a new way. Just as the feminist movement placed an important emphasis on the study of the everyday in revealing new perspectives on the social world, the study of people’s everyday experiences of odour, similarly draw attention to key urban issues such as air quality, public health, social inclusion and the fine balance between public and private space in the city.

But before I elaborate further on city odours today, allow me to briefly summarise some background to this line of enquiry. The term ‘smellscape’ was first coined in 1990 by geographer J. Douglas Porteous, in his book ‘Landscapes of the Mind: Worlds of Senses and Metaphor’[3]. Similar to the term ‘landscape’, or more recently that of ‘soundscape’ which can be traced back to the work of Shaffer[4] and colleagues on the World Soundscapes Project, ‘smellscape’ is used to describe the smell environment surrounding us; both its individual component odours and its totality[5]. Indeed, it was the interesting work on urban soundscapes carried out at the University of Salford’s Acoustics Research Centre, and specifically that investigating the positive role that sound (as opposed to noise) plays in urban experience and perception, that first wet my appetite or rather tantalised my nostrils, and got me thinking about smell and the city.

Cities have historically been thought of as dirty, smelly places fuelled by the gathering of large numbers of people in concentrated areas, supported by a cycle of food and goods supply, waste production and removal. Pre-industrial towns and cities across Europe were extremely odorous places by today’s standards. Laden with excrement, mud, de-composing animals, meat, vegetables and blood, the pigs that routed around in the street for organic matter offered only small comfort in reducing the filth within which urban dwellers went about their daily lives[6].

Industrialisation, dubbed by Barbara and Perliss[7] the ‘excremental age of architecture’ (2006, p30), brought pollution of urban air as a by-product of burning coal in the home and industry, however it was the smell rather than the smoke that people disliked most as diseases, believed to be carried in the air through foul smells, were feared more than respiratory illnesses[8].

Academic research and popular programmes such as the BBC’s recent Filthy Cities series[9] have increased awareness of historical urban smellscapes; however few studies have examined contemporary urban smell environments. Difficulties experienced when measuring or describing odours undoubtedly contribute towards this gap in knowledge, although techniques such as gas-chromatography[10] or technologies such as augmented noses[11] are starting to emerge. Furthermore, it wasn’t until the publication of Buck and Axel’s paper on the function of the smell system in 1991, for which they went on to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2004, that the scientific community gained a degree of consensus regarding how our sense of smell even works.

Moreover, modern architects, urban designers and planners have been widely accused as preoccupied with visual aspects of the environment, argued by Richard Sennett[12] to result in towns and cities that deprive the senses, creating, “…the dullness, the monotony, and the tactile sterility which afflicts the urban environment”. My research attempts to gain insights that might assist in overcoming this bias, through the investigation of everyday experiences of smell in the contemporary city. Through undertaking smellwalks, a practice where I walk with participants in defined areas and ask them to focus upon what they can smell, I have examined what odours we detect in cities, how we perceive these and in turn, what relationship odours have with our perceptions of the places in which we detect, or associate, particular odours. There is also a practical side to my research, a hangover from days spent as a practitioner delivering large scale urban realm projects, where I identify tools by which planners, architects and urban designers might better accommodate considerations of smell within their work.

So what factors influence the smell of our cities today and what smells might we expect to detect? Clearly, the smellscapes of towns and cities today are very different from those of the past, largely a result of conscious and unconscious odour management strategies that have attempted to: separate smells away from the city (e.g. heavy industries, waste water treatment facilities, abattoirs) or away from source such as through elaborate ventilation systems such as those in the alleyways of Manchester’s Chinatown; deodorise environments by introducing sophisticated waste management systems and cleansing activities that remove or wash away odours; mask existing odours with other odours that prevent or change the perception of those existing in the smellscape (e.g. odours of traffic overlaying those of local vegetation); and scent urban environments, (e.g. the use of scented cleaning fluids in public areas and car park stairwells or synthetic odours in outdoor commercial advertising campaigns).

Perfumed Fountain (Grasse, South of France)

Perfumed Fountain (Grasse, South of France)

The impact of these various strategies can be felt wherever we wonder; the expectations we have of what we might smell in contemporary cities and the different types of areas within them, varies significantly from expectations of the towns and cities of twenty, fifty, one hundred years ago. And what smells do we actually detect in the contemporary city? A much wider variety than we might initially think. When I ask people to name the odours that they expect to detect in the city, they usually highlight those stereotypical urban odours of traffic pollution, waste, cigarette smoke and coffee, and admittedly such odours do feature as important components of urban smellscapes. However, there are many other odours that are also frequently detected, ranging from local vegetation, materials, construction and key environmental features such as rivers, canals or the sea, through to markets, restaurants, ventilation emissions, street vendors and people. Factors such as the physical place we inhabit, our previous experiences, and the time of the day, week or year when we detect an odour, will likely influence our perception of that odour as well as the odour also influencing our perception of that place. So next time you walk down the street, have a sniff and see what you can smell; you might be surprised!

Smell advertising in London, February 2011

Along with colleagues in Geography and the Manchester Business School, Victoria is organising an inter-disciplinary workshop on Smell and the City, to be held on Monday the 19th March 2012, 12-4.30pm at the University of Manchester. Places are strictly limited so to find out more or reserve a space, please email Victoria will also be organising a series of smellwalks in Manchester in April and May, so please let her know if you would like to participate.

To find out more about Victoria’s work, visit, follow her on twitter @VictoriaHenshaw or alternatively you can download a podcast of a recent radio interview with her, on American Public Media  (3rd March 2012 edition of the show).

[1] The most widely recognised senses in the western world are those of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch (including haptic elements such as vibration) however, the scientific community also identifies the vestibular and proprioceptive senses (also referred to as kinaesthesia), see for example Lackner, J. R. and P. DiZio (2005). “Vestibular, Proprioceptive, and Haptic Contributions to Spatial Orientation” Annual Review of Psychology 56: pp.115-147

[2] Tafalla, M. (2011) Smell, Anosmia, and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature Presented at the Sensory Worlds Conference at the University of Edinburgh, 7th – 9th December 2011

[3] Porteous, J. D. (1990) Landscapes of the mind – Worlds of Sense and Metaphor. Toronto, University of Toronto Press.

[4] Schafer, R. M. (1994). Our Sonic Environment and the Soundscape – The Tuning of the World, Rochester.

[5] Porteous, J. D. (1990). Smellscape. Landscapes of the Mind: Worlds of Sense and Metaphor. Toronto, University of Toronto Press: pp. 21-45.

[6] See Classen, C. (2005). The Sensuous City: Urban Sensations from the Middle Ages to Modernity. Sensing the City: Sensuous Explorations of the Urban Landscape. Canadian Centre for Architecture; Cockayne, E. (2007). Filth, Noise & Stench in England. London, Yale University Press.

[7] Barbara, A. and A. Perliss (2006). Invisible Architecture – Experiencing Places through the Sense of Smell. Milan, Skira.

[8] Cockayne (2007)

[9] See The programme was launched with an accompanying scratch and sniff postcard of historical city odours such as those of XXX

[10] See Buchbauer, G. (2011) Flavour and Fragrance Chemistry: An Overview. In Diaconu, M., E. Heuberger, et al., (Eds). Senses and the City – An interdisciplinary approach to urban sensescapes. London, Transaction Publishers. P139-143

[11] See products such as the ‘Nasal Ranger’ which measures the dilution level of specific smells (Weber, C. (2011). “Augmented nose sniffs out illegal stenches” New Scientist. Issue2799)

[12] Sennett, R. (1994). Flesh & Stone – The Body and the City in Western Civilization. London, W.W. Norton & Company. P15

11 thoughts on “Fragrant Cities – Relationships between smell and urban environments

  1. Pingback: Miroirs de la ville #9 La ville, une impression sociale « Urbain, trop urbain

  2. Chris Smith

    This is uncanny – we have just been asking people what Manchester smells of as part of ‘Finding Manchester’. We’re putting together a box of things which are individual to Manchester Uk as a gift to other Manchesters around the world. We wanted to include the ‘smell of Manchester’ (in a nice way). Great blog.

    (Thanks for the follow on Twitter by the way.)

    1. Victoria Henshaw

      Hi Chris, thanks for your email and kind comments and yes, what a coincidence! What smells did you find that people associated with Manchester?

  3. Adrian Morton

    Hi, your study is interesting as I think olfactory design is often not well integrated into projects. I feel that there is a lot of information that could be referenced relating to garden designers of last century (Vita Sackville West (Sissinghurst), Mackintosh (Hill House gardens) who certainly integrated visual with olfactory senses. The use of combining visual, olfactory and interactive gardens in healthcare has been well researched in terms of the benefits on health, the reduction in medication and quick recovery times. Hence the the iuse of smell is an important factor of our environment.

  4. Victoria Henshaw

    Hi Adrian, excellent examples for me, thanks very much. One of things I have also examined, that I do not mention in my blog, is the restorative role of odour in urban environments. Although the restorative benefits of the sight of green landscapes have of course been widely researched, little is written about the restorative role of odours in the city, although a colleague of mine Sarah Payne at the University of Warwick, did an excellent job examining the restorative role of sound in urban parks. Thanks again.

  5. Pingback: Sound of the city « Prof Cathy Parker’s Blog

  6. Pingback: Şehirlerin Kokuları | Geniş Zamanlar

  7. Pingback: Fragrant Cities – Relationships between smell and urban environments « Smell and the City

  8. Pingback: Shock, stench and filth: smell and historians of the urban environment « Smell and the City

  9. Pingback: Smellscapes | PlaNYourCity

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s