Nose-first: practices of smellwalking and smellscape mapping

Download full PhD HERE

Research Question

“How might subjective, dynamic, vernacular, urban smellscapes be rendered ‘eye-visible’?”

To answer this central question, I address two secondary questions:

  1. Which mapping practices and formats best reflect human subjectivity, ephemerality of smell and the uniqueness of particular smellscapes?
  2. What constitutes the smellscape, and how might it be conceived as a spatial and temporal environment?


My PhD thesis examines qualitatively-perceived spatial and temporal characteristics of the olfactory landscape, hereafter known as the smellscape, through mapping practices. Human olfactory perception contributes to our understanding of the world; people delight in localised scents. Slight whiffs can enable pre-visualisation of a forthcoming activity, serve as a summary synthesis of previously-witnessed events and have the capacity to evoke situated memories. However, the smellscape is in constant flux and ephemeral, volatile smells are easy to ignore when experienced by ordinary people in everyday, urban environments. The apparent invisibility of smell as a physical entity, and as a social construct, in the prevailing sensory order has led scholars to call for further studies in how smellscapes may be detected, recorded and shared.

This interdisciplinary, practice-based, communication design research responds to debates in olfactory art and urbanism that highlight the challenges inherent in obtaining and sharing a vast, ephemeral and eye-invisible sensory dataset. Concerned with representation and communication of the smellscape as theorised by J. Douglas Porteous and activated by Victoria Henshaw, the research explores how social performative mapping might contribute to communication of non-visual sensory olfactory information. In so doing it tests existing theories to build a deeper understanding of the smellscape.

The thesis is divided into six chapters and includes two case studies situated in Singapore and Kyiv. Through iteration I test the smellwalk as a data-collection and mapping activity and investigate and record the spatial and temporal qualities of smell within contemporary, quotidian, urban environments. Drawing on interdisciplinary methods, sensewalking, agentic mapping, rhythmanalysis and creative practice, I develop and apply original approaches to practices of smellscape mapping as a means of analysing, interpreting and communicating a theorised fragmentary and episodic olfactory landscape.

The findings include a model of dimensional olfactory space, durational differences in smells between mornings and evenings in single locations, multi-scalar temporalities of a city, polyrhythmic relationships between the situated human body and a range of smells, and a series of projective mappings that render visible olfactory-sensed information. My original contribution to knowledge includes mapping strategies to examine relationships between smells and space, smells and place, smells and time, and smells and people. By providing cohesive approaches and procedures for smell detection and collection, together with symbol sets and processes for the representation of human-experienced smells, I establish practices of smellwalking and smellscape mapping as platforms for conceptualising and sharing the complexity of human-sensed olfactory perception. These practices might be utilised by communication designers, geographers, environmentalists, architects, urban designers, city authorities and arts organisations interested in visualising and communicating situated, human, sensory experience. The work contributes to the nascent field of sensory communication design.translating humanistic smellscape perceptions into spatial forms.

My PhD is in Information Experience Design from the Royal College of Art, London. My super supervisors were Prof Teal Triggs (RCA) and Chris Perkins (University of Manchester)

Future Research Goals

My next goal is to integrate my practice with digital technologies on a number of levels. To this end I am interested to pursue Research Fellowships and collaborative grant proposals with designers, coders and storytellers… please do get in touch if this is you.