This “smell map” of London shows emission odors in red and natural scents in green. (Credit: Daniele Quercia, Rossano Schifanella, Luca Maria Aiello, and Kate McLean)

“Smell Mapping” to Understand Cities Better

Understanding cities is essential to making them more livable, cohesive, functional, and ultimately, more resilence. This piece, cross-posted from NextCity with special permission, looks at formalizing how to document how a city smells to help urban planners understand cities better. 100RC engages in content partnerships with several organizations, and cross-posting does not indicate an endorsement or agreement.

There are many ways to map a city: a basic street map, a neighborhood breakdown, by demographics. Now, thanks to researchers from the academic and technology worlds (Yahoo), we have something a bit different: the smell map.

Urban Smellscape map of London. Made in OpenStreetMap by Schifanella Rossano.

The authors of “Smelly Maps: The Digital Life of Urban Smellscapes” used their own noses, crowdsourcing and social media to create odor-centric maps of cities.

According to the Washington Post:

Smell is hard to record, analyze and depict visually. So to make these maps, the researchers first created what they call a “smell dictionary” with the help of volunteers around the world. They asked dozens of residents in seven cities in Europe and the U.S. — Amsterdam, Pamplona, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newport, Paris and New York — to conduct “smell walks,” in which they walked around, identified distinct odors and took notes on what they were smelling. The researchers took the words that were mentioned by two or more locals and used them to compile a small dictionary.

Here is what they came up with:

(Credit: Daniele Quercia, Rossano Schifanella, Luca Maria Aiello, and Kate McLean)

The researchers argue that since smell is one of our most evocative senses, it has a great impact on our behavior, health and attitude. Urban planners often look at the aesthetics of public places but don’t consider smell as often — unless it’s garbage or sewage.

Currently, there are maps of London and Barcelona, and researchers hope that the cartography will inspire a fuller sensory approach to planning.