How city “smell-mappers” can help with virtual reality, real estate and how we understand the past

Tulips on the Dam Square for National Tulip Day: one of the nicer smells you'll encounter in Amsterdam. Image: Getty.

Data scientists, artists and urban planners are mapping digital “smellscapes”, opening up new possibilities for virtual reality, real estate and how we understand the past. In the process, they are provoking interest from the UK’s biggest conservation charity. All three groups are exploring the ways in which smell influences environmental perceptions, using social media data and “smellwalks” to trace olfactory tendrils stretching through city streets.

Luca Maria Aiello is part of a group of researchers with GoodCityLife.org, which maps urban smellscapes by tracking keywords online. It creates skeletal road maps with colour-coded strips: red for emissions, green for nature, blue for food, yellow for animals, and grey for waste. The Bayshore Freeway in San Francisco, for example, predominantly smells of emissions, according to the data. The project also ranks “Likeability”. The emotion most commonly affiliated with the freeway is “sadness”.

Aiello and colleagues compiled the percentages with the aid of the work of the late British urban planner Victoria Henshaw, and began their research by collating a dictionary of smell-related words she listed. “It was our first feat to look for words in social media, and then we [produced] ... some sort of class word to put all these words together in microcategories,” Aiello explains.

Henshaw undertook smellwalks as part of her doctoral research, publishing a book called Urban Smellscapes in 2013. She used qualitative methods “including semi-structured interviews, participant drawings and direct observations” rather than social media data. GoodCityLife uses geotagging, and sifts through Twitter and Instagram to collect terms. 

At this point, says Aiello, they could “map all the major cities in the world”. So far, they have traced the smells of 12 different cities “without spending too much money because this data can come for free from the public in the area”.

He acknowledged the potential for ‘noise’ in the data; corroborative evidence is vital in being able to compile accurate maps. Data availability levels are shown alongside street maps, and in some areas it is still low: further documentation is vital.

British artist and designer Kate McLean steps away from the “big data approach”, preferring the more “human” practice of walking out into the city. Aiello and his team used McLean’s methodology “as a way of confirming the data they gathered through hashtags,” McLean says. 

 

A detail of Kate McLean's smallmap of Amsterdam.

On 28 February and 1 March, McLean will conduct two smell walks in London in conjunction with the Museum of Walking and The Flower Hut. She delightedly recollected previous events. “We had a group of 10 or so people going up to this biker and asking to smell him – it’s not illegal to smell people – just impolite,” she says.

She recalled a nonsmoker on a London smellwalk, who asked a stranger to breath a cloud of tobacco smoke on him. He just “really wanted to understand it,”she says.  Recalling a trio to Pamplona, she says: “You get people arguing about what is being cooked five storeys up.” The olfactory cues acted as precursors to “imagined worlds”, where some visualised “a meat stew with tomatoes” being cooked and others bolognese.

Combining such work with the internet opens up several new possibilities. Aiello points to the implications for virtual reality. “You can think about an application that lets you explore places remotely... not only the visuals but the full sphere of perceptions of a space.”

He also details how it could affect the real estate market. House values should hopefully “reflect the positivity of the environment,” he says, adding that he hopes “to work with city officials to put up targets for interventions” as senses correlate with “something very tangible, which is the health of the citizens.”

 

Another detail of Kate McLean's smallmap of Amsterdam.

The UK’s National Trust is also mulling the incorporation of smells into its visitor interaction, says McLean, to get people to “think about smells, but contextualised,” she said.

Nicky Boden, a visitor experience consultant with the Trust, confirms that it is looking into the possibility, but adds that this is specifically in the Midlands rather than on a national scale. “We are interested in trialing some new approaches to ‘tours’ or managed experiences which are more participatory and draw on the senses to create a deeper connection with people and place,” she says.

Conveying smell is a different issue. Last October, San Francisco-based artist Laurie Halsey Brown, conducted a smell walk around the Presidio, a park in the northwest of the city. Afterwards she produced psychogeographic art ‘kerchiefs, with “light variances of the image reflecting how smells dissipate and linger, with some locations having stronger and weaker areas of scent”.


McLean’s smell maps are usually animated; she believes motion better indicates the temporary quality of smell. “If I’m mapping something that disappears into nowhere, surely that map should not actually stay fixed,” she says.

Aiello took a less flexible approach. “It’s a bit evanescent but it’s also quite easy to map smells into an object from which a smell originates,” he says. “It’s a little bit trickier if you want to map even more subjective concepts like happiness and so on.”

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Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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