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)
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“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.”
- 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?
- visual map. Here’s a great analysis to get young students started with visual mapping.
- taste map. What foods are available in your neighborhood? Maybe you can use colors to indicate if foods are ingredients (found at shops or supermarkets) or meals (found at restaurants).
- Many cities have outdoor food festivals with nicknames such as “A Taste of Chicago.”
- touch map. What different textures can you find in your neighborhood? What areas are “touch-friendly” and which ones say “keep out”?
- One art gallery in Santa Barbara, California, presents tactile works of art to be experienced by the visually impaired.
- sound map. What different sounds can you hear as you walk through your neighborhood? Maybe you can use colors to indicate if a sound is natural (such as crickets or birds) or synthetic (such as music or car engines).
- The music distributor Spotify made a fun musical map that tracks distinctive playlists for dozens of cities. Use it to expand your musical horizons, from the Sounds of Kowloon (Hong Kong) to the Sounds of Kopavogur (Iceland).
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
3 thoughts on “Sniffing out Cartography”