A sense of smell

Currently in the initial stages of our latest research project, the workgroup is considering the concept of A Sense of Place: what is a sense of place and what does it mean to people? It is difficult not to feel lost surrounded by the sheer amount of information relating to this subject. I have a tendency to try to establish a spot to where I can retrace my steps. I feel ever so slightly anxious every time I am presented with a new line of thought, in case I get caught up in the tangent, ultimately losing my way. There is a need for an anchor therefore, a stable base from which to launch the search, to which you can always return, the knowledge that this all relates back to the initial enquiry, a sense of place. That we are not just drifting...

In the physical environment, what is it that gives us this sense, this feeling that a place means something to us, whether we class this as 'home' or 'place attachment' or 'place association'? Are we actually talking about two different uses of the word 'sense' and 'place'?

  • Sense - sensory receptors / data from our surroundings

  • Sense - the feeling which results from external information (when mixed with an individual’s own response, based on personal experience. For example, as discussed later, smells will evoke different thoughts or memories for different people).

  • Place - a physical location / space / area

  • Place - the concept of belonging somewhere / being placed

The idea that all of the five different senses contribute to an individual’s understanding of a place is fascinating. Of course this can happen on both a conscious and subconscious level; sometimes a sense of place is intangible or cannot be articulated.  

As part of the Viva City 2020 research programme, researchers at the University of Salford, University College London and the University of Sheffield developed an innovative methodology to engage local residents and businesses in deliberations about their daily environment. The methodology asks people to be conscious of their sensorial experiences within their urban surroundings, including sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, and has proved an effective way of engaging people. The information this reveals is combined with environmental data taken from direct monitoring of conditions both inside and outside people’s homes. 

It was at last year’s urban design conference that I first became aware of Dr Victoria Henshaw (lecturer at the University of Sheffield) and her research around the sense of smell and the urban environment. As part of the conference she led a ‘smell walk’ around Newcastle picking up on the city centre’s fragrances (and stenches), and discussing the impact these might have on our experiences and perceptions of the urban landscape. Her recent publication 'Urban Smellscapes: Understanding and Designing City Smell Environments' examines case studies in English towns and cities, highlighting the role of urban smellscapes in place perception, and describing odour’s contribution towards an overall sense of place.

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 place making? How do we design smell environments in the city?
— Dr. V. Henshaw
(Image: Hoi Ki Chu)

(Image: Hoi Ki Chu)

The link between smell and place perception is connected to the important role smell has in self-preservation, and therefore its connection with memory; which in turn informs how we feel about a certain place, and whether we want to place ourselves there. As Henshaw comments, 

... the human sense of smell has a special relationship with memory, allowing us to transport across space and time to people and places often long gone. How many of us have detected smells that have taken us back to childhood memories that we thought long-forgotten?

One research participant informed me that the combined odour of a specific perfume with cigarette smoke always reminds her of her mother, now deceased. The same unique combinations of scents are true for places and cities too, stored in the back of our memories for long periods of time for places we have visited in the past, and frequently at the forefront of our consciousness when first visiting unfamiliar territory.

Henshaw’s blog Smell and the City is an absorbing read, featuring work by students focusing on sensory perceptions of places, as well as accounts of smell walks which are open to the public. These engage people in paying particular attention to one strand of a myriad of sensory data which inundates them and contributes to their sense of place.


Author: C. Russell