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Exploring the urban smellscape with sensory maps

Kate McLean’s rather delightful sensory mapping lets you explore cities around the world by smell, seeing odours turned into visual creations and even reliving some of the smells themselves. We’ve been talking to Kate to find out more.


Why sensory maps?

On her website, Kate explains: “I am an olfactory experience designer focusing on human perception of the urban smellscape”. It sounds exotic, unusual, perhaps even confusing, but it all boils down to maps that illustrate smells, and Kate’s dynamic creations offer something that’s truly different. So how did she get started with smelly maps?

“I was doing a master of fine arts in graphic design at Edinburgh College of Art in 2009, and was looking at the city from the perspective of an outsider, with people describing different parts of the city. I was translating those words into textures, and then creating tactile maps. I was overlaying texture onto the physical plan of the city.”

“I had an exhibition, and was scratching around with ideas, and thought why not try doing cities by smell, and why not do them by all the separate sensory inputs and see what that reveals about a city as a result. I focused on the smell because it seemed to be the most captivating and there seemed to be very few people operating in that field.”


The results are fascinating, and it turns out that our cities, and other cities around the world, differ massively when it comes to odours. Kate explains:

“In terms of odour profiles of the cities, they actually do reveal huge differences between the places. Sometimes they reveal huge differences if you visit in the weekdays or go at the weekends. It's a constantly shifting smellscape with a couple of things that stay similar.”

Kate highlights Edinburgh as a city that stands out when it comes to smell: “Edinburgh is one of the few locations that still has a brewery remaining within the city itself, and that's actually a smell that people like and associate with their city, especially if they've lived there for a long time. Combined with the prevailing winds, it means a lot of Edinburgh is actually covered in the smell of the brewery.”

It’s interesting to see that certain elements can help make cities to stand out, and Edinburgh isn’t the only one either. Kate points out that the mayor of Amsterdam worried people would only know the city because of its smell of cannabis, but her odour map highlighted something completely different, and Kate adds:

“Cannabis didn’t actually feature in the top ten of smells. What did feature, in the springtime, is tulips and daffodils. It was almost like a flower explosion, which is why that particular map is called Flower Explosion. It’s very indicative of Amsterdam at that time of year.”


Creating the maps

“There's a style that I'm working with which takes the smell as if it's a particle in its own right,” Kate tells us. “I'm creating maps that are dynamic and I very much like them when they actually move, because it's more of a presentation, more the possibility of a smellscape than a static map which is very much a moment in time.”


“I try to create them over a period of time - usually four to five days - with incredibly varied groups of people. I've worked with the general public, school children, wine makers, visually impaired people and then some university professors and students on another day. I have people contacting me asking to be invited, and they range from people who are interested in experiencing their city in a new way, to people who are interested in maps, to people who are interested in smell.”

And once Kate has collected the data she needs, it’s possible to turn it into something visual. “The overall look of it comes from the fact that smells generally have a source,” says Kate, “they have an intensity; they have the potential to move in certain directions in the wind. The objective of the work is to draw attention to the fact it's highly sensory.”

Of course, there’s no guarantee that you’ll like the smells on offer! “One of the smells of Edinburgh is boys’ toilets in primary schools,” adds Kate. “It's a powerful and strong smell.”

“And one of the ones from Newport is rotting skate, which is used as lobster bait. The maps exhibit with smells, and I actually create the smells in a number of different ways. That's the point they become really interesting. They're an indication of possibility, and they're a call to go out and experience the city for yourself.”


Canterbury was one of the cities that Kate attempted to recreate odours for, and she tells us: “The smell of history was one we identified. We went out and picked up a prayer cushion, some prayer books, some old timber and then we used distillation extraction to create those smells and then put them in diffusers so they came out as clouds of smoke.” It certainly gives a new meaning to the term ‘interactive maps’!

What next for sensory mapping?

With Kate intent on providing a dynamic experience when it comes to sensory mapping, it’s logical that her future maps embrace technology, and some of the maps – like Amsterdam – already include motion graphics.

There’s a smartphone app on the way too, and she points out:

“I’m working on an app at the moment that feeds in with my PhD which is looking at ways of taking the data that people feed in directly, and then recreating those as installation artwork, or possibly being able to compare two or more places at the same time. There’s a future for it, but it will definitely involve the human and smelly parts as well as digital!”

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