Urban Smellscapes
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Urban Smellscapes

Understanding and Designing City Smell Environments

Victoria Henshaw

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eBook - ePub

Urban Smellscapes

Understanding and Designing City Smell Environments

Victoria Henshaw

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About This Book

We see the city, we hear the city, but above all: we smell the city. Scent has unique qualities: ubiquity, persistence, and an unparalleled connection to memory, yet it has gone overlooked in discussions of sensory design. What scents shape the city? How does scent contribute to placemaking? How do we design smell environments in the city?

Urban Smellscapes makes a notable contribution towards the growing body of literature on the senses and design by providing some answers to these questions and contributing towards the wider research agenda regarding how people sensually experience urban environments. It is the first of its kind in examining the role of smell specifically in contemporary experiences and perceptions of English towns and cities, highlighting the perception of urban smellscapes as inter-related with place perception, and describing odour's contribution towards overall sense of place. With case studies from factories, breweries, urban parks, and experimental smell environments in Manchester and Grasse, Urban Smellscapes identifies processes by which urban smell environments are managed and controlled, and gives designers and city managers tools to actively use smell in their work.

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One sunny afternoon in July 2012, my family and I made our way through Paris on a very busy Metro train after cheering on the spectacular final stage of the famous Tour De France cycling race. Still in celebratory mood, we were temporarily distracted from our revelry when we realised that our station connecting us to the Gare du Nord was closed. Instead we spilled out of the train, along with dozens of other travellers, one stop earlier than planned. No sooner had the doors opened than the strangest incident occurred. I'm not sure what I became aware of first: a dry, dusty, powdery smell hung in the air; all around, people started coughing and sneezing; my nose tickled and I experienced a tingling, almost burning sensation in the back of my throat, similar to the feeling you might get when breathing in pepper. As I fought the urge to gag and splutter along with my fellow commuters in a desperate attempt to expel whatever substance we were breathing in, I sought out other sensory information to inform me of the source of our collective displeasure, but I could not identify anything abnormal. However, as we descended from the platform among the building rooftops and down towards the street, the source of our discomfort became more apparent.
Despite many previous trips to Paris over the years, this multi-cultural neighbourhood was not one that I had visited before. The area teemed with people; groups of men stood together outside food stores, women and children congregated outside sari shops, and stores with peeling paint sold halal meat and unfamiliar foodstuffs. Heavily congested roads ran alongside and through the area dividing the thronging crowd, and primarily static vehicular traffic emitted fumes onto the pedestrian pavements where people walked laden with assorted coloured plastic bags. My family and I were outsiders in this area and our response to the alien odours hanging in the air reinforced this unfamiliarity. What I had first thought might be the product of some kind of mischievous act was revealed as the combined odours of strong food spices, dust and car fumes. Such encounters are not unusual in the Barbes Rochechouart and La Chappelle area of Paris where we had found ourselves, and are further pronounced during the annual Ganesh Festival when thousands of people descend on the area to celebrate the birthday of this popular Hindu god and camphor is burned as the procession moves through the streets (see Figure 1.1). These odours are not
Figure 1.1 Ganesh Festival, La Chappelle, Paris 2009 ©melodybuhr
those traditionally associated with Paris, represented in popular culture by its street cafés, Gauloises cigarettes and pissoirs; instead they are significant of a changing city and the differences between people and their perceptions of smells.
This incident reminded me of a presentation I attended some years ago in London, delivered by Jamie Furniss, then of Oxford University, on his ethnographic work with Zabaleen communities in Cairo, Egypt (see Figure 1.2). Zabaleen translates as ‘garbage collector’, and the community lives and works among Cairo's waste, sorting it into different types as part of a recycling initiative driven by economic necessity rather than environmental urgency. Furniss highlighted the objectionable smell of these districts, and explained how he had to learn from and deal with his physical response to the strong odours in undertaking his research (Furniss 2008). This presentation led me to think about the role of smell in cities and urban life, and to wonder how people would respond should the odours from the Zabaleen communities leak into the city's wealthier neighbourhoods. I set out on a quest to better understand experiences of smell in the city, and came to appreciate that these occur as a result of the coming together of people, odours and the environment, occurring at specific points in space and time. I also set about investigating the current and potential consideration of smell within my own broad disciplinary sphere of interest, that of the design and management of urban environments. This book is the product of my research.
Figure 1.2 A little girl walks through the waste, the Zabaleen, Cairo ©jamiefurniss
The smell environments of towns and cities are incredibly important and combine with other sensory information to impact directly on people's everyday experiences of urban life and their perceptions of different places, streets and neighbourhoods. However, when I mention to people that I research smell in cities, they invariably raise an eyebrow and question why it might be important to consider the role of odour in urban environments. Some suggest that we would be better off if we couldn't smell the pollution, the waste or the cigarette smoke frequently associated with urban life. Although these comments originally surprised me, I now appreciate that they are entrenched in society's preoccupation with the way things (people, environments and objects) look, and, to a lesser extent, the way they sound. I also now understand that such comments are influenced by some of the special characteristics of the sense of smell. As Richard Sennett (1994) identified in Flesh and Stone, where he examines the (dis)placement of the body in the city over time, city leaders and built environment professionals do not fully consider the physicality of the body within the environment, and as a result, opportunities to create different, stimulating and appropriate places for humans to inhabit within the city are missed.
First, however, it is necessary to clarify what I mean when I refer to ‘built environment professionals’, and to explain what I believe such professionals and students of related disciplines might gain from this book. I consider the term ‘built environment professionals’ to encompass everyone who is involved in the planning, design, development, control, maintenance and marketing of urban environments, whether on an immediate day-to-day basis or in terms of medium to long term planning, and according to a variety of scales from specific sites up to the level of the whole city. This term therefore primarily includes city planners, architects, urban designers and city managers, but it also extends to city engineers, geographers, marketers and those with a general interest in urban studies. I believe all of these professions have suffered from disciplinary perspectives which ignore opportunities presented by the sense of smell, and I hope this book will provide valuable information to support them in re-thinking their approaches and avoiding potential pitfalls along the way.
Clearly, the importance of delivering urban environments which meet our needs has never been greater. In 2008, for the first time in human history, the world's population became predominantly urban (United Nations 2008). With the emergence of global ‘megacities’ such as Mumbai in India, Shanghai in China and Lagos in Nigeria, urban densities around the world look set to continue to grow, thereby creating new ways of living and presenting fresh challenges in city design and management. Much previous research into the sensory aspects of urban life has focused primarily on negative characteristics, frequently labelling these as ‘environmental stressors’. Such environmental stressors include undesirable environmental stimulation such as unwanted noise and vibration, and, from an olfactory perspective, poor air quality and ‘nuisance’ odours. However, just as Schafer (1994) and his colleagues on the World Soundscape Project in Vancouver, Canada made notable steps in highlighting the positive role that ‘sound’ as opposed to ‘noise’ can play in environmental experience, smell too has a positive role to play in city life.
‘Smellscape’ is a term originally coined by Porteous (1990), which can be likened to the visual landscape of an area as recorded in a photograph or painting. Porteous used this term to describe the totality of the olfactory landscape, accommodating both episodic (fore-grounded or time limited) and involuntary (background) odours. However, as Rodaway (1994) highlights, the urban smell environment is not as continuous, integrated and clear as visual, auditory and tactile space, and it is therefore impossible for a human being to detect the entire smellscape of an area as a whole at any one point in time. Following Porteous, when I mention urban smellscapes in this book, I am referring to the overall smell environment, but with the acknowledgement that as human beings, we are only capable of detecting this partially at any one point of time, although we may carry a mental image or memory of the smellscape in its totality. However, more of that later.
Although previous studies have assisted in developing a deeper understanding of the senses in environmental experience and design, few have focused specifically on the sense of smell. Sensory studies scholar Constance Classen (et al. 1994, 2005a) and historians Emily Cockayne (2007) and Jonathan Reinarz (2013) have written of everyday historical smell experiences of the city, with others writing of the experiences of specific (usually minority) groups (Classen 1999; Cohen 2006; Manalansan 2006). Low (2009) has examined smell experiences in contemporary Singapore, Grésillon (2010) in Paris, and Madalina Diaconu et al. (2011) in the parks, coffee shops and public transport of Vienna, Austria. However, further and more detailed investigation of the smell characteristics of towns and cities is required, with the specific aim of informing urban design and management practices carried out on a day-by-day basis. In this book, I seek to contribute in broad terms to theory and practice by exploring the role of odour in towns and cities. I will do so by documenting and investigating different interpretations of odours in the urban environment, investigating relationships between urban smellscapes and city experiences and perceptions, and identifying ways of better incorporating smell into city design decision making processes and practice through the introduction of different tools for designing urban smellscapes.
I will draw on observations of urban smellscapes from across the world, some of which I gained alone or with others while undertaking urban ‘smellwalks’. However, primarily I focus on two separate but related empirical studies carried out in English cities, which I outline in detail in Chapter 4 alongside a description of smellwalking as a method for researching the urban smellscape.
I have organised this book into three parts, each including three individual chapters. It is designed to allow the reader to either peruse the book from start to finish should they wish, or to dip in and out according to their own specific requirements or interests. Part I (Chapters 2, 3 and 4) provides key context for understanding urban smellscapes, bringing together existing but previously disparate knowledge on the sense of smell and its relationship to city experience and perception. Chapter 2 focuses on the city, Chapter 3 emphasises the human sense of smell and how it works, and Chapter 4 outlines the method of ‘smellwalking’, used as a valuable mechanism for documenting place specific detections and meanings of odours. Part II (Chapters 5, 6 and 7) explores contemporary experiences of smell in the city according to source type, including air quality and pollution, food, and those odours produced as a consequence of urban policies such as anti-smoking legislation or the encouragement of twenty-four-hour cities and related evening economy activities. Part III (Chapters 8, 9 and 10) draws from the discussion in previous chapters in identifying existing odour control processes in the city, highlighting material factors of infuence and some tools by which built environment professionals might seek to positively affect urban smellscapes, and also offering insights into the role of odour in placemaking.
In short, this book investigates the factors at play in everyday experiences and perceptions of odour in the city. Although it does so by drawing in detail from smell experiences in English cities, the issues raised and the design solutions identified are of international relevance and application, as illustrated in the form of supplementary examples from across the world. Ultimately, in writing this book, I seek to engage with others with a passion for cities including academics, researchers, built environment students and professionals, helping to develop practices that better respond to the olfactory challenges and opportunities presented in designing more humanistic and enjoyable places in the city.

Part I



Perspectives on smell and the city I

When I first began to explore sensory deprivation in space, the problem seemed a professional failure – modern architects and urbanists having somehow lost an active connection to the human body in their designs. In time I came to see that the problem of sensory deprivation in space has larger causes and deeper historical origins. (Sennett 1994: 16)
Advice issued by a UK insurance company in 2008 for claims relating to sensory loss estimated the monetary value of the total loss of the sense of smell at £14,500 to £19,100. This compared to £52,950 to £63,625 for the total loss of hearing, and up to £155,250 for the total loss of sight. Only taste was valued lower than smell at £11,200 to £14,500 (Fox Claims 2008), which is an interesting valuation in its own right given the close associations between smell and taste (smell is responsible for between 70 and 90 percent of taste). It is a sad fact that across the Western world smell is not only one of the most marginalised of the widely recognised fve senses, but also the one that people are most willing to lose (Vroon 1997).
I know a philosopher, Marta Tafalla from Barcelona, who has congenital anosmia, meaning that she was born without a sense of smell. 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 (Tafalla 2011). In my own research I have found that the very way that the sense of smell operates means that it frequently isn't until people lose their ability to smell the world around them that th...

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