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Community / Public space

A designer is creating "smell maps" of cities

When you think of the cities you’ve visited, you probably recall the skyline, the architecture or the quirky details of a city’s streets. You’re less likely, unless the place still had open sewers, to think of the smell.

But, according to graphic designer Kate McLean, a city’s smells can be equally unique. Take Glasgow: when McLean, a graphic designer, set out to map the smells of Scotland’s largest city, in different areas, she found perfume, wet moss, carbolic soap, and the rather specific “hot Bovril at the footy”.

The Glasgow map is part of project McLean is undertaking as part of her PhD at the Royal College of Art, in which she aims to map cities by their smells, rather than by visual landmarks. McLean says our smell memory is better than our visual memory – after a year, we apparently recognise 100 per cent of smells, but only 30 per cent of visual material – and so has set out to create maps paying tribute to the neglected fifth sense.

In the commentary accompanying the Glasgow map, McLean notes that “Glasgow’s scents reflect the pride of its citizens”, and characterises the map as a tribute to the city’s heritage (football, the river, local foods).

New York City, on the other hand, received no such sympathetic treatment: in 2010, McLean set out to find the “smelliest” area of the city. Apparently, it’s the blocks south of Delancey Street on the Lower East Side, where you can expect a fragrant combination of cheap perfume, stagnant water, orange peel and cabbage:

For every city she maps, McLean spends days, or even months, walking around and noting down smells and locations. Back in her studio, she recreates the smells in bottles using techniques similar to perfume-making, then creates a visual aide: a map of the city with coloured markings showing where each smell was present. She stores the bottles of scent under the maps, so the map works both visually and, er, nasally. 

Most recently, McLean spent a year in Amsterdam, where she’s creating smell maps and working with school children to investigate “some of the fleeting, episodic city smells that we often miss or ignore”. She’s also organised “smelling tours” through cities; another project was a taste map of Edinburgh. 

McLean isn’t suggesting we use sensory maps for navigation – after all, smells change with the wind and as people perform different activities. Instead, she says her aim is to highlight “the multi-sensory nature of human understanding”. Even when that means recreating the specific odour of urine on a New York City street.

All images: Kate Mclean. You can see more on her Sensory Maps blog here
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