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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Which pairs of capital cities are the closest together?

Vienna, which is quite close to Bratislava, but not quite close enough. Image: Thomas Ledl

It doesn't take long to get from Paris to Brussels. An hour and a half on a comfortable Thalys train will get you there. 

Which raises an intriguing question, if you like that sort of thing: wich capital cities of neighbouring countries are the closest together? And which are the furthest away? 

There are some that one might think would be quite close, which are actually much further part. 

Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, sits on one side of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, while Montevideo, Uruguay's capital lies on the other side. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But at 207km apart, they're not really that close at all. 

Similarly, Singapore – capital of, er, Singapore – always sticks in the mind as 'that bit on the end of the Malaysian sticky-out bit'. But it's actually pretty far away from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. A whole 319km away, in fact:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Thinking of 'countries that cause problems by being close together', you inevitably think of South Korea and North Korea. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And while Pyongyang in the North and Seoul in the South are pretty close together, 181km just isn't going to cut it. 

Time to do some Seoul-searching to find the real answer here.

(Sorry.)

(Okay, not that sorry.)

Another place where countries being close together tends to cause problems is the Middle East. Damascus, the capital of Syria, really isn't that far from Beirut, in Lebanon. Just 76km:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Seeing as Lebanon is currently host to millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria's never-ending civil war and the atrocities of Daesh, or Isis, this is presumably something that authorities in Beirut have given a certain amount of thought to.

Most of the time, finding nearby capitals is a game of searching out which bits of the world have lots of small countries, and then rooting around. So you'd think Central America would be ripe for close-together capital fun. 

And yet the best option is Guatemala and El Salvador – where the imaginatively named Guatemala City is a whole 179km away from the also imaginatively named San Salvador.  

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Another obvious place with lots of small-ish countries is Europe – the site of the pair of capitals that drove me to write this nonsense in the first place. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And in fairness, Vienna and Bratislava do make a pretty good showing of it. Austria's capital sits on the Danube; drift downstream, and you swiftly get to Slovakia's capital. As the crow flies, it's 56km – though as the man swims, it's a little longer. 

There are more surprising entries – particularly if you're willing to bend the rules a little bit. Bahrain and Qatar aren't really adjacent in the traditional sense, as they have no land border, but let's just go with it. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Manama, Bahrain's capital, is 140km away from Doha, the centre of the world's thriving local connecting-flight-industry which moonlights as Qatar's capital. 

Sticking with the maritime theme, Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago is 152km from St George's, Grenada. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Good, but not good enough. 

Castries, the capital of the Carribbean country of St Lucia, is 102km north of Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Better, but still not good enough. 

Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts and Nevis, inches ahead at 100km away from St John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But, enough teasing: it's time to get down to the big beasts.

If you ask Google Maps to tell you the distance between the capital of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it comes up with a rather suspect 20km. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

A short distance, but considering the only thing separating the two is the River Congo, something's up: Google places the centre of Brazzaville a little north of where it should be, and the centre of Kinshasa many many miles south of where it should be, in some sort of suburb.


So, in true CityMetric style, we turn to train stations. 

Though such transport hubs may not always perfectly mark the centre of a city – just ask London Oxford Airport or London Paddington – in this case it seems about right. 

Kinshasa's main train station is helpfully called 'Gare Centrale', and is almost slap-bang in the middle of the area Google marks as 'Centre Ville'. On the other side of the river, 'Gare de Brazzaville' is in the middle of lots of densely-packed buildings, and is right next to a Basilica, which is always a good sign. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And when marking that distance, you get a more realistic 4.8km. If you want to be really keen, the ferry between them travels 3.99km, and the closest point I could find between actual buildings was 1.74km, though admittedly that's in a more suburban area. 

Pretty close, though. 

But! I can hear the inevitable cries clamouring for an end to this. So, time to give the people what they want. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you ask Google Maps to tell you how far away the Holy See, capital of the Vatican, is from Rome, capital of Rome, it says 3.5km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you set the centre of Rome to be the Palatine Hill, the ancient marking point for roads leading out of Rome, that narrows to 2.6km.

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Fiddle a bit and put the centre of the Vatican as, well, the middle bit of the roughly-circular Vatican, that opens up a smidge to 2.75km.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Mark the centre of point of the Vatican as the approximate location of St Peter's Tomb within St Peter's Basilica, which is after all the main reason the Vatican is a thing and not just a quirky suburb of Rome, and 2.67km is your answer. 

Though obviously in practice Rome and the Vatican are as far away as one single step over the railings at the entrance of St Peter's Square, which fairly blatantly makes them the closest capital cities in the world. 

But that would have been a very boring thing to come out and say at the start. 

Oh, and if you hadn't worked it out already, the longest distance between a capital city and the capital of a country it shares a land border with is 6,395km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

I know it's tough for you, Vladimir and Kim. Long-distance relationships are a real struggle sometimes.

I can't make a pun work on either Moscow or Pyongyang here, but readers' submissions more than welcome. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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