In Praise of Smelly Places

Your sense of smell is intimately connected to your experience of a place and your memory of it. So why don't cities take greater advantage of this?

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Fish stink. Or, at least, many of us feel this way. Urban harbors and open-air fish markets have this particularly pungent, musty odor that curls nose hairs and seeps into our pores, traveling home with us long after we’ve left. Most of us, however, would be sorely disappointed if we turned up at a fish market in Baltimore, or Seattle, or San Francisco, only to discover that it smelled like nothing at all.

This is the wonderful quality of urban odors: even what we commonly think of as the stinky smells are crucial to our experience of a place. Just as a street with no pedestrians, or a park with no birdsong or a lakefront without breeze might offend our senses of sight, sound and touch, places that just don’t smell like much seem somehow incomplete – even inauthentic – too.

Smell is our largely ignored sense in the city. Architects, designers and urban planners have long been preoccupied by the visual. And they’ve only lately begun thinking more about sound. But we seldom ponder and plan for smells in part because we barely have the vocabulary to do so.

"If you say something 'smells,' just the way we use language, it implies that it smells badly,” says Victoria Henshaw, a researcher at the Manchester Architecture Research Centre in England. And this isn’t just English. Most western languages have this problem: an insufficient language to describe scent. So when Henshaw talks about how cities smell, she isn’t knocking them. She believes that the whiff of fish markets, bakeries, cigarette butts and auto exhaust can help us think about cities differently.

As humans, we’re actually not pre-programmed to be repulsed by certain smells and attracted by others. All of our preferences are learned, and they’re learned differently in different places. (Don’t believe this? Excrement is probably the most universally reviled stench. But babies in fact gravitate toward it because it’s familiar to them. “It’s only once they start to be socialized,” Henshaw says, “do they realize, ‘oh dear, I’m not supposed to like that smell.’”)

The American military, she adds, has never been able to develop an effective stink bomb to disperse crowds because no one stink bomb smells stinky to crowds all over the world. In the context of cities, this means that one man’s smelly Polish market is another man’s fragrant reminder of home. And so the task of thinking about cities through our noses requires we acknowledge that odors of all kinds are essential to the ways in which we each individually perceive the sense of a place.

“Once I got into this subject, I started to think about smell in a new way,” Henshaw says. As part of her research into smells and the city, she regularly leads people on “smell walks” around various towns, encouraging people to tune into a sense that we commonly take for granted. Her smell walks often involve fish markets. And invariably, even the people who say they hate the smell of fish are dismayed when they don’t encounter it. “Even if it was a generally disliked smell,” Henshaw says, “it generally enhanced their experience of that place. It’s interesting to think about that in terms of designing areas. It’s not as simple as thinking about good or bad smells.”

Smell, of all of our senses, has a special link to memory (this is evolutionary: if chili once made you violently ill, your nose will remember that next time you encounter a bowlful so that you don’t have to make the mistake of testing it by mouth again). And so smell also has the ability to transport us to past places we’ve been or to remind us of the people we were with at the time. Henshaw loves to walk through the gardens of the famous Chatsworth house outside Manchester. A few years ago, she visited, of all places, an urban REI in Seattle that’s practically landscaped in forestry.

“I sat in this area and thought wow, this place is so amazing, it’s so relaxing. I thought, why do I feel so at home here?” she says. “Actually, it had exactly the same smell as Chatsworth. And I started to realize, that was why I felt at home.”

Henshaw defers to Marta Tafalla, a philosopher in Barcelona who was born without a sense of smell, who puts it this way: the world “is both a less beautiful and a less ugly place without a sense of smell.”

Urban planners and architects are hardly to blame for failing to exploit this potential of smells to create more vibrant places. Scientists only began to understand what was long considered our most mysterious sense in the early 1990s (the Nobel Prize for discovering how our noses work wasn’t awarded until 2004). Now we know that humans can detect 10,000 different sources of smells. And men and women do this about equally well, despite how most of us rate our own honkers.

Women tend to self-report they have great senses of smell, and men often say that they don’t. This has certainly been the case on Henshaw’s smell walks.

“But when we actually got out there, they tended to detect the exact same things,” she says. “What was different was the women were more disgusted in what they smelled. Vomit, body odor, those kind of traditionally disgusting smells, women are more likely to go ‘oh, disgusting, I feel sick.’ Men are less likely to do that.”

All of these lessons could inform cities in following in the footsteps of commercial brands. Coffee shops in particular have for years been taking advantage of the weird science of 'scent branding.' So why can’t urban designers think this way, too? The smell of fresh produce from a farmer’s market might attract first-time visitors, creating a sentimental attachment to a neighborhood more powerful than the taste of ripe fruit (as a next step, what if that farmer’s market was actually situated to take advantage of natural air flow through an area?). Other smells function like wayfinders, announcing our arrival in Chinatown, or on a bar strip, or approaching the beach. This same concept applies at both the block and city level. What about a whole city that smells like Cheerios?

Even cities that smell like fish might want to embrace the distinction.

“I wouldn’t say that we have to as designers try and achieve an environment that looks great, that smells great, that sounds great,” Henshaw says. “I think what we actually need is diversity.”

Top image: Tupungato / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.