You can see it, hear it feel it and even taste it. But Victoria Henshaw believes that our experience of a city would not be complete were it not for the smells we encounter along the way. On a recent trip to Sheffield I followed her as she tried to nose out smells that create lasting impacts on people’s perceptions of the city.
As a regular visitor to the SteelCity I know its landmarks, its people’s dialects and the realisation of how unfit I am when I ascend one of its seven hills. Yet what is harder to ascertain is how it smells, especially now that some of its most famous 20th century ones, the steelworks and Wards Bitter brewery, have gone.
Victoria, an urban design and town planning lecturer at the University of Sheffield, helped a group of us resolve that. She started leading walks around the world in 2009 when she realised the lack of research into the impact of smell on urban populations. Through them she tries to encourage residents to take more notice of the importance of the sense and encourage designers to take the sense more seriously when it comes to planning centres.
Victoria led us on a one hour trail which led us to fountains, roadsides and even had us nosing the bins. We learnt how no one smell is received in the same way universally and how our reaction to them can be dependent on childhood experiences.
On one trip down a back alley she told us that despite finding that people lovenatural smells a common feature of modern town planning is to try exclude these very things from the public. Having back areas away from the public where less clean smells can be emitted is one way this has been done. Yet she said that preventing people from being able to connect these scents to sight and sound had knock on effects on the memory and their enjoyment in the city. On top of this, the removal of more potent and individualistic smells could even impact on people’s ability to navigate centres, especially those with visual impairments.
Moving to inhale outside high street stores she points out how the retail industry has been much quicker to realise the potential of smells. Used in bus stop advertising campaigns and to attract customers inside shops the prevalence of these artificial scents over natural ones is contributing to the homogenisation of our urban centres.
Although surrounded by them constantly we have trained ourselves to ‘adapt’ or become ‘habituated’ to smells on a day to day basis. Yet Victoria believes its once we lose these familiar smells that we realise that something has either changed or does not feel right. Saying that she will continue to work in the area as long as research needs to be done she has also released a book documenting findings and suggestions from herwork so far.
Called ‘Urban Smellscapes: Understanding and Designing City Smell
Environments’, it gives designers and city managers tools to actively use smell in their work to help provide better experiences for people visiting their area.