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Urban Smell Space and Olfactory Reply


Usually, designers (like me) focus more on visually-driven forms and experiences when designing. However, there are many different kinds of human sensations. Apart from the visual, the most dominant senses are smell and taste. As someone with an underdeveloped sense of smell, I like to actively use my sense of smell. However, when I feel the smell of the city, it is usually unpleasant. In a sense, the stench is far more persistent than the scent. So, when we encounter bad smells, we always perceive them. These feelings can affect the experience of life.

Many people have the same bad sense of smell as I do. The New Coronavirus has gone from a highly lethal disease at the beginning to one that seems to have weakened to the point where the symptoms are only like the common cold. It can be said that the immediate impact phase of the New Coronavirus has passed. But the epidemic is not over, with 71%[1] of people in England alone having had New Coronavirus. And it has sequelae, with close to 10% [2]of people suffering severe sequelae and 5% [2]suffering loss of smell or taste. So, attention to these lost or smell-impaired people is also part of social justice.

Smell space research

There have been studies on urban olfactory spaces even before the epidemic.

City Smell Map

Dr. Kate McLean is one of the scholars who have been looking at and acting on this topic since 2014. She argues that “human olfactory perception contributes to our understanding of the world; people are delighted by localized smells and disgusted by those removed from the background. Light olfaction allows people to pre-imagine upcoming events, acts as a summative synthesis of previously witnessed events, and has the ability to evoke situational memory. However, odor landscapes are constantly changing, and transient, volatile odors can easily be overlooked when experienced by ordinary people in everyday urban environments.” [3]

Fig.1 Singapore Smellscape. Image Courtesy of Dr. Kate McLean[1]

So she generated different spatial maps of smells based on different cities. In her research, groups of people of different sizes walk around cities and record the smells they perceive. Although they recorded only the momentary state of the city, they also came up with excellent results. dr. Kate McLean has documented these results in her blog. [4]

Heritage Smell Map

In 2017, a study entitled “The smell of heritage: a framework for the identification, analysis, and archiving of historical smells” was born.  This research aims to identify places and practices where smell is fundamental to their character through a theoretical analysis of the concept and role of smell in heritage guides by exploring evidence of the use of smell in heritage as a tool for communicating with audiences[3]. This is achieved through an experimental evaluation of techniques and methods for analyzing and archiving odors so that they can be documented and preserved.

Many heritage buildings in the UK are worthy of conservation. The study concluded that odor is also a heritage asset worthy of preservation. The source and composition of odors were analyzed by determining the chemical factors of odors in unique heritage room spaces. A final classification table on heritage odors was generated. The table divides the heritage spaces into eight base materials and is subdivided into sub-categories. A link from material to odor was established.[5]

Fig.2 Urban Smellscape Aroma Wheel[2]

Smell, Identification and Psychology

And other studies in the last two years have pointed to the importance of scent in creating an environment. For example, the relaxing scent of perfume can help people focus and relax their minds[6]. Scents can also help people identify the area they are currently in; for example, floral and herbal scents can let people know they are entering a natural or man-made green environment. However, these studies also point out that one of the difficulties in studying scent spaces is obtaining data on the scents in the space[7]. The process of obtaining pre-data is complex and inaccurate.

Fig.3 Deploying fictional itinerary mapping practice techniques to depict a historical smellscape alongside a contemporary version (© Kate McLean, 2020)


Theory of a eyewitness

So how do we address the lack of smell from a design perspective? French winemaker Sophie Paras has concluded from her own experience that a possible way to revive her sense of smell is to use wine categories that she knows pretty well, especially those aged wines that are very fruity and spicy, to help jog her sensory memory[8]. On the urban scale, we can also use methods to establish spatial and scent connections.

My ideas

My idea is to select the space that helps to recover olfactory memory and form an olfactory identity.

As with all the previous researchers, these people with olfactory loss were first interviewed about their fondest memories of odors. Based on the places they provided, a map of place odors was created. This map acts as a guide for the user to purposefully recall the places in the city with odor memories. A multifaceted visual and olfactory link can thus be established to revive their sense of smell.

Although the designers are aware of the psychological and spatial role of scent spaces. However, it is still difficult to translate the abstract concept of smell into a spatial entity. For this reason, I will also continue to work on thinking about physical and abstract forms of spatial expression.


[1]  Roberts, M. (2020, April 1). Pneumonia Outbreak: Is Loss of Smell or Taste an Important Indicator of Infection? BBC News.

[2]  China news network. (2022, July 28). Study: 5% of Newly Infected People “lose” Their Sense of Smell or Taste for Long Periods of Time. Economic View.

[3]  Florian, M. (2022, July 22). Sensory Maps: What the Sense of Smell Can Reveal about Urban Environments. AchiDaily.

[4]  Mclean, K. (2014, June 4). Smell and City.

[5]  Bembibre, C., Strlič, M. Smell of heritage: a framework for the identification, analysis and archival of historic odours. Herit Sci 5, 2 (2017).

[6]  Using Ambient Scent to Enhance Well-Being in the Multisensory Built EnvironmentFront. Psychol., 19 November 2020 Sec. Environmental Psychology Volume 11 – 2020 |

[7]  Recent Advances in Smellscape Research for the Built Environment Front. , 19 July 2021 Sec. Environmental Psychology Volume 12 – 2021

[8]  How to Recover Your Sense of Taste and Smell after a New Crown Cure? French Winemaker Shares His Experience. (2021, March 13). Xinhua Network.


[1]  Florian, M. (2022, July 22). Sensory Maps: What the Sense of Smell Can Reveal about Urban Environments. AchiDaily.

[2] The Smell of the City. (2017, November 8). Akna Marquez.

[3]  Recent Advances in Smellscape Research for the Built Environment Front. , 19 July 2021 Sec. Environmental Psychology Volume 12 – 2021

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Planning and Landscape
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