Just last night, I came home from work and I was making dinner using the microwave. I was preparing a ‘microwavable meal’ of pasta–sounds great right–the meal did the job to say the least (which needs no further comment). While I was stirring the meal in between cooking cycles in the microwave, I started to smell an unfamiliar smell which I could not place in my kitchen. Although, when you are hungry–the stomach tends to ‘out rank’ all senses in ‘reason’ or ‘logic.’ I noticed that the door was open and went outside to see if by any chance the smell was coming in through the door...
Before I finish the story that I started let me cut to the chase. I was reminded of an article that I read concerning our (humans) relationship with smell and design layout in a large city. What was suggested as a ‘smell walk’ in the article, I was actually mimicking in my own home without realizing this behavior. We do this all the time without really placing emphasis on this talent. This method could be extended to touring the city according to the news. Let me explain in the post below.
What Is A ‘Smell Walk’?
Until I read an article in the ‘New York Times ’ recently, I was unaware that a ‘smell walk’ existed. I would reserve such a description to the tour of a factory (industry) – food, perfume, chemical –exclusively not to the topic of touring a city, much less observing the history behind a city based largely on the sense of smell. The article was titled ‘Don’t Turn Up Your Nose At The City In Summer". Dr. Victoria Henshaw describes our relationship with odor as follows:
We tend to think of a heightened sense of smell as an animal skill — something our pets are better at than we are — but our olfactory systems, too, are clever at filtering and categorizing the smells we detect. We sort odors into the familiar, which represent no threat, like the scent of our own homes, while the unfamiliar are brought to our conscious attention, whether as potentially pleasurable or possibly insalubrious.
The downside of this filtering process is that we fail to appreciate the sheer volume of smell information we process on a daily basis. Those who lose their sense of smell attest to the scents they desperately miss, as well as to the fear that comes with being unable to detect smoke, gas or rotten food.
My fascination with smell as stated earlier was limited in scope up to a few months ago. In a previous blog post, I highlighted the research conducted that determined that humans can differentiate between around 1 trillion different scents. Of course, the larger degree of overlap in scents increases the difficulty in differentiation on the part of the test subject (human). To observe a city through the sense of smell was surprising and foreign to me. Usually, olfactory information is suppressed or less prioritized in the grand scheme of day to day interactions with the environment. According to Dr. Henshaw this sensory information contributes more to the design of a city than inhabitants (residents) know which is highlighted in the article from ‘The Times’ here:
In New York, smell was a key factor in the city’s original planning. Devising the grid system in the early 19th century, the city commissioners aimed to maximize the benefits of westerly winds to dissipate the supposedly deadly miasmas thought to spread disease. Odor standards were enforced by local smelling committees. In 1891, in the 15th ward (Greenwich Village), members identified pollution from an oil refinery by following their noses.
The surprising thing is that they could detect anything over the smell of human waste. In 1890, The New York Times reported that the city’s sewers dumped an estimated 100,000 tons of fecal matter a year into the harbor. Industry added to the problem: An inspection in 1910 found that in Yorkville, home to German immigrants at the time, brewery effluent flowed in the pipes, while around Canal Street, the smell of banana oil — used as a solvent by painters — dominated.
Odors can often provide a guide to the city’s industrial past, even decades after smoke has stopped pouring from the stacks. In London’s Olympic Village, for example, the main stadium was built on a former industrial zone — and when it rains, locals report detecting the smell of soap seeping from the site of an old factory.
Smell also provides a sociological map of the city. Poorer people tend to have less control over their smell environments. Residents of Hunts Point, in the Bronx, suffered for decades from the acrid odors of the waste-treatment plants there. Only after a public and private nuisance suit was brought by residents and activists in 2007 did the city settle the case and clean up its act.
Of course, I admit that I am not a city planner, instead a chemist. In the course of a chemistry education, the average student (and graduate student) is exposed to a wide range of volatile chemicals and as a result becomes accustomed to differentiating his/her way through the vast ‘smellscape’ of the chemistry research laboratory. Although, when the same student steps out onto the street, a disconnect is present to the urban environmental smells surrounding them. This is an area of science communication in which there is tremendous room for improvement. Courses such as ‘the science of cooking’ have been concocted to combat this disconnect between the laboratory and the outside world (a much larger laboratory). There exists a vast array of smells (some concocted and some uninteded) that invade our noses on a daily basis that we are unaware of and do not appreciate as a result of other dominant senses. After reading this I decided to look further into Dr. Henshaw’s research of our relationship with smell and city planning. Dr. Henshaw is a Professor of Urban Design and Planning at the University of Sheffield and has studied the role of our relationship with the sense of smell in a variety of environments. Work like that of Dr. Henshaw provides us with a new vernacular from which to view problems associated with the environment and sustainability. She has a blog on which there is a large number of articles highlighting her adventures with smells. In addition, she has written a book that should be in print soon. On her blog post describing her book, she expands further on her interest with smell and urban planning as highlighted here in this excerpt:
In Urban Smellscapes I draw from detailed research with participants in Doncaster, Manchester, Sheffield and London (UK) and the wide range of smellwalks I have conducted around the world including those in Edinburgh (UK), Seattle and New York (US), Grasse (France), Montreal (Canada) and Barcelona (Spain). I explore relationships between our individual senses of smell and personal characteristics, alongside factors relating to the world surrounding us such as the buildings and streets we walk through, the activities that take place within them and the people and objects we encounter. By drawing from people’s descriptions and perceptions of the smells they encounter, I identify a range of different tools and models for deconstructing and designing smell environments, and in doing so I hope that city leaders, architects and urban designers are better equipped to take a more positive approach to smell when designing places and spaces in the city.
I love to learn about new ideas and research. Since I read about this research last week, I have been thinking about various ways in which I have ignored the smells surrounding me on a daily basis. Throughout the day, I tend to ignore smells, but as the research above indicates tourists and city dwellers are missing out on an untapped dimension of pleasure continuously. Without even realizing it, when we step into our homes each night–each of us perform experiments with our noses that send a signal to our brain that the building (our home) is indeed matched with our sight (our visual observation). This simple task may seem mundane since each of us perform an experiment continuously unconsciously. Think about how often you carry out an experiment with your nose to validate your visual experimental observation–very frequently. The combination of smells and sight provide us with comfort, whether it is at home, work, a favorite restaurant, a family physician, etc.. This leads me back to the story of cooking my pasta at the beginning of the blog post. Let me explain below.
An Unfamiliar Smell In A Familiar Place
Navigating the ‘smellscape’ in our home is task that is continuously done. As I started the post, I was cooking a meal in the microwave and smelled an unfamiliar smell that I had never experienced while cooking this particular meal before. My mind started to wander all over the place. I started asking myself – did I burn something? Is that the smell of burned plastic? Is there something else burning that was left over in the microwave? I was smelling while hungry–or anticipating my meal. After the meal was cooling, I was ready to eat and I looked over at the ‘trash can’ only to find that there was a used up bag of ‘microwaveable popcorn’. In the midst of being hungry, I could not even determine the correct origin of the unfamiliar smell. In addition, I was recalling a history of cooking events that had taken place in our kitchen over the last 24 hours only to realize that my wife had cooked some popcorn earlier that day. I did not connect the fact that she had been on vacation (off from work) and stayed home and produced an unfamiliar (or unknown to me). I was amazed at the events that unfolded in this scenario.
Here I was worried about a smell that I linked to the current meal that I was making–which is normal. I was not enjoying the variety of smells that were in our kitchen as a result of meals that had been made. The history of odor was dominated by my immediate task which was to make dinner. This observation ties into the above discussion of smell walks–in that–I was only concerned about the smell in relation to the present. I was not appreciating the variety of history that was contained in our ‘trash can’ since the last disposal. I realize that I have rambled on a bit. This blog is rather loosely tied together. The point is that we are inundated with a variety of odors on a daily basis and choose not to filter them out for the pleasure of observation–unless there is an immediate need to differentiate between them. Restaurants along with retail stores make use of our odor differentiation to sell us products everyday consciously and unconsciously.
Marketing and advertising consultants use the sense of smell to guide the consumer into a store (or try to). Historically, the use of chemicals (fragrances, odor trapping, odor masking, etc.) in products and advertising is a well-developed area of marketing. Although–with the technological development of ‘diffusers’ along with other distribution devices coupled with chemical synthetic methods, chemistry has helped the economy through sense of smell in a variety of ways. I was not surprised to read that certain stores spray odors (synthetic chemicals) that match the products that are sold inside. As technology is developed further into odor identification and synthesis, expect more exciting and undeniable hidden influences to draw you into a given establishment. The use of odor to attract customers was embedded in the design layout of a store or restaurant in past time. Now, with the precision of chemical synthesis to make remarkable odors that are very familiar as well as enticing to our olfactory sense, our ability to withhold the temptation to a given food or fragrance product is decreasing. Retailers are enlisting the help of psychologists, sociologists, and other scientists to hone in on a product that will sell with little resistance (on the customer's part). These tactics used by marketers and advertisers should not be cast in a negative light. Instead, the consumer should appreciate the diversity and precision that science lends in producing products that are appealing to the nose of consumers and invoke a desire to purchase or eat. There is a lot of science involved in the product development. As a consumer, I am always fascinated by the creative effort that is behind such products.
The new lesson learned from reading and exploring Dr. Henshaw’s research is that I will from now on try to focus more attention to my nose than I did previously in the past. By the way, if you would like to learn 5 tips to having a better ‘smell walk’ from the expert herself, check out Dr. Henshaw’s blog post outlining suggestions. I challenge the reader to do the same. Think about all of the neglected smells that you encounter on a daily basis. Further, challenge yourself to view the layout of a big city (such as New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc.) in terms of the smell distribution. Compare the layout of the city with the history. Does the smell match the past? What differences have you observed? Summer time is a time to get out an enjoy the beautiful weather outside. In addition, with this new information learned, an added component awaits your adventure. Enjoy the wide range of sensory information provided by a city’s odors alongside the traditional ‘sight seeing’ in your adventures.