A designer is creating "smell maps" of cities

McLean’s smell map of Amstedam. Image: Kate McLean.

When you think of the cities you’ve visited, you probably recall the skyline, the architecture or the quirky details of a city’s streets. You’re less likely, unless the place still had open sewers, to think of the smell.

But, according to graphic designer Kate McLean, a city’s smells can be equally unique. Take Glasgow: when McLean, a graphic designer, set out to map the smells of Scotland’s largest city, in different areas, she found perfume, wet moss, carbolic soap, and the rather specific "hot Bovril at the footy".

The Glasgow map is part of project McLean is undertaking as part of her PhD at the Royal College of Art, in which she aims to map cities by their smells, rather than by visual landmarks. McLean says our smell memory is better than our visual memory – after a year, we apparently recognise 100 per cent of smells, but only 30 per cent of visual material – and so has set out to create maps paying tribute to the neglected fifth sense.

In the commentary accompanying the Glasgow map, McLean notes that "Glasgow's scents reflect the pride of its citizens", and characterises the map as a tribute to the city’s heritage (football, the river, local foods).

New York City, on the other hand, received no such sympathetic treatment: in 2010, McLean set out to find the “smelliest” area of the city. Apparently, it’s the blocks south of Delancey Street on the Lower East Side, where you can expect a fragrant combination of cheap perfume, stagnant water, orange peel and cabbage:

For every city she maps, McLean spends days, or even months, walking around and noting down smells and locations. Back in her studio, she recreates the smells in bottles using techniques similar to perfume-making, then creates a visual aide: a map of the city with coloured markings showing where each smell was present. She stores the bottles of scent under the maps, so the map works both visually and, er, nasally. 

Most recently, McLean spent a year in Amsterdam, where she’s creating smell maps and working with school children to investigate “some of the fleeting, episodic city smells that we often miss or ignore”. She’s also organised “smelling tours” through cities; another project was a taste map of Edinburgh. 

McLean isn’t suggesting we use sensory maps for navigation – after all, smells change with the wind and as people perform different activities. Instead, she says her aim is to highlight “the multi-sensory nature of human understanding”. Even when that means recreating the specific odour of urine on a New York City street.

All images: Kate Mclean. You can see more on her Sensory Maps blog here

 
 
 
 

Podcast: The Great Northern Rail Crisis

Manchester Victoria station during a 2017 strike. Image: Getty.

You wouldn’t necessarily know it reading the news from London, but the north of England’s railway network is in a bit of a mess. Delayed electrification work, a new timetable, mass cancellations, the whole shebang.

To explain how bad things are, and how they got that way, I’m joined by Jen Williams, political and social affairs editor for the Manchester Evening News. She tells me why nobody seems sure who’s to blame for this mess, and whether there’s any realistic chance of anyone tidying it up any time soon. All that, and we talk about Andy Burnham, too.

The episode itself is below. You can subscribe to the podcast on AcastiTunes, or RSS. Enjoy.

Skylines is supported by 100 Resilient Cities. Pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, 100RC is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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