Smellscape: exploring & sharing urban olfactory experiences

‘A smell! A true Florentine smell! Every city, let me teach you, has its own smell!’

‘Is it a very nice smell?’ said Lucy, who had inherited from her mother a distaste to dirt.

‘One doesn’t come to Italy for niceness,’ was the retort; ‘one comes for life. Buon giorno! Buon giorno!’

― E.M. Forster, A Room with a View


The smellscape of our world is in constant flux and contemporary cities are in danger of losing their distinctive stinks (Henshaw, 2014). Smells come and go, meandering amongst architectures, vehicles and nature, between people and their everyday routines, indexing rhythms, life and activity within the contemporary, vernacular urban fabric but rarely do we pause to consider or remark on their presence nor on their absence. The invisibility of smell, both as a physical entity and as a social construct in the prevailing sensory order (Howes & Classen, 2013) has led scholars to call for further study in how the urban smellscape may be detected, recorded, stored and communicated (Drobnick, 2002). Smells are easy to ignore, they have a propensity for absence, and are ephemeral, disappearing swiftly, volatilizing, hitchhiking rides on the air currents that meander and swirl through the multi-faceted grid of the city.

Despite its ephemerality human olfactory perception makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of the world around us; we both delight in localised scents and feel disgust at decontextualised odours. Slight whiffs can enable a ‘pre-visualisation’ of forthcoming activity, and also serve as a summary synthesis of witnessed events with the capacity to induce time-travel and momentary location-displacement. A fleeting sniff can take one back to a personal memory-place and thus the human-perceived smellscape can be an individual as well as a shared experience.

The potential dataset for smell perception is vast, with up to 1 trillion different smells (Bushdid, Magnasco, Vosshall, et al., 2014) being theoretically detectable by the human nose, and we sniff an average of 24,000 odours every day. One significant challenge is how to record, share and make sense of such experiences. But the perception of a smellscape is more than simply identifying smell objects; it is an immersive experience that possesses qualities of its own. This practice-based study investigates smell perceptions within urban environments, collecting and proposing ways to record and communicate this vast array of invisible information, rendering the seemingly known environment un-known (Hara, 2015).

The research addresses how the fragmentary and episodic nature of the smellscape (Porteous, 1985) might be explored and analysed using theories of temporality in order to facilitate individual and shared interpretation of the olfactory in our understanding of place. It investigates how smell can be represented for shared interpretation, how technologies might be used in the investigation and depiction of volatile smellscapes, and how and where creative mappings of smellscapes might be deployed, translating humanistic smellscape perceptions into spatial forms.

Research Question
How can the urban smellscape be explored in order to facilitate individual and shared interpretation of the olfactory in our understanding of place?

Sub Questions

How can smell can be represented for shared interpretation?

How can technologies might be used in the investigation and depiction of smellscapes?

How and where creative responses to smellscapes might be deployed to facilitate shared and individual interpretation?


I am a PhD Candidate in Information Experience Design at the Royal College of Art, London. My supervisory team is: Prof Teal Triggs (RCA) and Chris Perkins (University of Manchester)

Please take a look through this quick slide presentation visual summary of my practice-based research and sensory cartography interests.