Sniffing out Cartography


Urban smellscape researcher Kate McLean travels the world mapping scents: Edinburgh smells of the brewery and penguin poo, New York’s summer is ripe with garlic and spilled beer, while Amsterdam smells of … damp? (Guardian)

Chart your own “smellscape” and other geography adventures with Mission: Explore!

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.

“My process of smellmap creation involves taking data directly from the comments of the smellwalkers and transcribing them into symbols on a digital or physical map . . . The symbols may be watercolours or digital icons in the form of morphed isolines or tiny dots. Each map is also full of white space, alluding to the massive smell voids where we simply don’t notice the aromas around us.”

Discussion Ideas

  • Get outside and go on a “smellwalk” of your neighborhood. It’s a great way to get physically active. “Smellwalking is an active practice,” says smellscape artist Kate McLean. “The whole body is involved as olifactors stoop, bend and stretch.” Where could you sniff out a map in your neighborhood?
    • storm drains and cracks in the sidewalk?
    • paved streets, dirt roads, concrete sidewalks, gravel paths?
    • keyholes, gates, and doorways? (ask first!)
    • garbage bins? compost heaps?
    • underpasses and lamposts?
    • public art and outdoor shop displays?
    • park benches and playground equipment?
    • animals? (be sure to ask before sniffing someone’s dog!)
    • bushes, trees, plants, and flowers?


  • After you make a list of odors and where you sniffed them out, put them into categories. Maybe these categories could help color your map:
    • food (the spices and cilantro of a nearby taqueria? outdoor barbecues at a public park?)
    • traffic (exhaust fumes? oil leaks?)
    • synthetic (bleach? chlorine? burning rubber?)
    • human (urine? cigarettes? garbage? sweat?)
    • construction (asphalt? paint? lumber?)
    • plants (flowers? fresh-cut grass?)


  • Did you find any surprises on your smellwalk? Kate McLean’s group of Amsterdam smellwalkers did!
    • “In seeking out the smell of urine, apparently a common occurrence in the half-basements of Nieuwmarkt, the smellwalkers instead happened upon a completely unexpected odor. Their bodies jolted upright, indignation and astonishment on their faces as they instead encountered the whiffs of old books, musty and forgotten, slightly damp and strong enough to escape through the cracks in the metal-framed glass doors.”


  • What natural forces might influence or change an area’s smellscape?
    • wind. With a strong northwesterly wind, for instance, the Amsterdam smellwalkers were treated to the scent of cocoa powder from factories almost 20 kilometers (12 miles) away.
    • precipitation. The pervasive damp smell of Amsterdam—what McLean describes as “slight decay and mold, a savory smell akin to that of a coat bought at a jumble sale or a plastic bag containing a two-day-old used swimsuit and towel”—was largely attributed to the city’s network of canals and frequent spring rainshowers.
    • temperature. “Odor molecules move more slowly as the temperature drops, so while there are fewer smells to detect on a cold day, hot days can appear to be super-stinky.”


  • What other sensory maps could you make of your neighborhood?



The Guardian: The sweet smell of Amsterdam

Nat Geo: Mission: Explore (includes missions, badges, and ties to learning standards)

Kate McLaren: Sensory Maps

Nat Geo: Map It! with Young Children

Spotify: Musical Map—Cities of the World

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