Smell is the first sense people use after birth. Humans can detect up to a trillion different smells, but anthropologists have found that in all known languages, there are fewer words that explicitly refer to our experience of smells than there are to any other feeling.
People’s perceptions, experiences and memories of a place are significantly shaped by the smells they associate with and detect in that place. However, despite its ubiquity, persistence, and integral connection to emotional memory, the importance of smell is vastly underestimated in discussions of sensory urban design. The human olfactory senses have evolved to detect the danger of unpleasant odors. Therefore, even when urban odors are treated, the main focus is on controlling nuisance odors from sewage and air pollution.
The “olfactory landscape” of a place has wide-ranging implications, ranging from public health to property valuation. Understanding how people sensually experience urban environments helps identify the processes of managing urban olfactory environments and actively incorporating smell into spatial design.
Smellscape as identity
The olfactory landscape of a city used to be distinguished by its characteristic scents. However, olfactory landscapes have changed dramatically over the past century due to globalization. Many towns have lost their uniqueness and become clone towns.
An olfactory landscape is a social intermediary and a key indicator of human activity, revealing cultural behaviors ranging from culinary customs to common occupations and popular hobbies. It can also reveal the presence of flora and fauna as well as the quality of local governance in terms of sanitation and waste management.
An olfactory landscape acts as a spatial-emotional intermediary. Smells are invisible but tangible elements whose individual impacts and combined with other sensory perceptions link an individual’s experience to the social structure of a place. They affect our moral judgment and how we categorize neighborhoods into socioeconomic hierarchies. This can set expectations for potential real estate and business investors, as well as tourists.
The smell of a city should be tailored not only for instant gratification, but also for creating lasting memories and allowing people to feel a sense of place. Smells are remembered longer than visual images and, through recollection and association, can transport people back in time. This makes investing in scentscapes financially viable in terms of place building and destination branding. Petrichor, or the fresh, earthy scent of first rain on dry ground, has been promoted by the southern Indian state of Kerala to attract tourists to its monsoon vibe. The magical smell of Petrichor, enlivened by captivating text, blends seamlessly into the visuals of a humid tropical paradise and the aural cues of rainfall, to complete Kerala’s brand image of a watery world.
The notes of a place
An olfactory landscape is shaped by the composition, concentration, intensity or strength and persistence of aromatic compounds in the air. The vocabulary of perfumery can be borrowed to describe the character of smells in places. An olfactory landscape can be considered as three distinct “notes” that unfold over time. The first impression of the olfactory landscape is provided by the top note or top note, which is followed by the middle notes or middle notes, which are detected as the top notes fade. They linger in the air longer, like the aroma of a barbecue. When the middle notes become imperceptible, the base or base notes become noticeable. These background odors establish the overall olfactory landscape of a place, like the scent of flowers in parks or the stench of polluted air from automobile exhaust on highways. Smells can be categorized into families such as Floral, Citrus, and Gourmand, with descriptor subtypes such as Fresh, Woody, Spicy, and Animal, to name a few. Sidewalks and public squares should incorporate these notes into their design.
Compose an olfactory signature
The art of creating an olfactory landscape is to curate a signature scent for the place that captures the essence of the place. Being constantly in motion, it is difficult to predict and control odors in an olfactory landscape. However, it is possible to amplify or conceal constant and episodic odors through sensitive design.
When attempting to produce a room scent for a location, several different variables need to be considered, including humidity, airflow, temperature, foot traffic, presence of plants and aquatic elements, the existence of artificial odor producing materials, local preferences and tolerance levels and many other factors.
People’s acceptance of an odor is determined by its perceived intensity as its strength, quality, or character, its hedonic tone, which is its general pleasantness or unpleasantness, their previous experience with the odor, congruence with the current context as well as their sense of smell. The psychological and physiological restorative effects of natural odors in urban parks tend to be less for rural residents who are accustomed to cleaner, fresher air. People appreciate the alignment of perceived odors with their environment and are annoyed or revolted by decontextualized odors. We might enjoy the smell of seafood in a fish market, but it would be disturbing in a park. Identifying and preserving distinct olfactory zones in a city can contribute to the complementarity of sight, sound and smell of a place.
Smell is important on the food streets because it is essential to fully experience flavor. The aroma of freshly baked bread can help you imagine a toasted loaf, remind you of the taste and texture of its buttery smoothness and chewy crust, and can also evoke situated memories of a satiated appetite. In cafe-lined streets, any odor source that masks appetizing aromas, including air fresheners, should be reduced. When smells enliven pedestrian routes, sweet and savory treats lead the way.
It can be difficult to quantify the effects of smells on people’s experiences. Most components of the olfactory landscape are short-lived and depend on individual or collective perceptions at a specific time. Thanks to the “olfactory walk”, it is possible to generate odor maps or visual representations of the perceived olfactory landscape. Participants record their conscious perceptions of a predetermined route and describe what it means to them using objective descriptions such as the “scent of jasmine” or associating it with emotions such as joy, despair or even bewilderment . Unlike the scent walk, participants in “urban drift” take unplanned walks through urban areas and record their observations through text or drawings. Brain imaging can also be used to assess how odors affect people by highlighting regions of the brain affected by odors recognizable from a place to which the participant has strong emotional attachments.
The fragrance notes or customer descriptions of their desired scent provided to perfumers are usually imaginative and passionate. Surveying residents’ preferences in this way could help designers more effectively integrate desired natural scents into spatial design, encourage pedestrianization, and therefore improve public health, social cohesion, and the economy of living. the street.
Giving meaning to perfumes
Focusing on olfactory landscapes rather than odor annoyance reduction opens up new opportunities to understand the importance of odors to human experiences and well-being. A holistic perspective of a place is developed by being aware of both its pleasant and unpleasant smells. Addressing sensory experiences when designing and planning public spaces would preserve the individuality and identity of places while advancing our understanding of their characteristics. The skilful mixture of passive and active smells of a place would allow the composition of an olfactory signature, unique and attractive both for residents and for visitors from diverse backgrounds.
(Ann Rochyne Thomas is a bioclimatic spatial planner and founder of the Center for Climate Resilience – a sustainability and climate change consultancy.)