Smelly Maps Point Your Nose to Life’s Many Aromas

Smelly Maps Point Your Nose to Life’s Many Aromas
Arts & Culture

Kate McLean project uses local researchers and social media to create the first urban smell dictionary

Vashti Hallissey
  • 2 june 2015

There’s a data machine capable of analyzing over a trillion different pieces of information which can be used in any situation. What’s more, it’s completely free, you already own one and you’re using it right now. It may seem that your nose is just a convenient place to rest your glasses, but it’s actually a complex data detective which can discriminate between millions of types of smells.

Smelly Maps is a new project led by Kate McLean that pays tribute to the neglected power of the nose. It aims to overcome the negative stereotypes we associate with city smells, and to celebrate the vast array of scents we encounter on a daily basis.


Daniele Quercia, one of the project researchers, explains:

Humans are able to potentially discriminate more than one trillion different odors. Yet city officials and urban planners deal only with the management of less than ten bad odors out of a trillion. Why this negative and oversimplified perspective? Smell is simply hard to measure. Cities are victims of a discipline’s negative perspective. The goal of our work is to open up a new stream of research that celebrates the positive role that smell has to play in city life.

For her PhD at Royal College of Art, McLean ran smell walks in seven cities in the U.K., Europe and the United States to collect smell-related words. Local volunteers walked around their cities to identify distinct odors and take notes, which the team analysed for smell descriptors.

Barcelona nature emissions

For London and Barcelona, the team matched local’s words with social media data, including tags on Flickr and tweets. They used these to create the first urban smell dictionary, containing 285 English terms.

While some of the words in the dictionary are to be expected—such as traffic emissions, waste and the metro, there are also surprising terms such as balsamic, Earl Grey and marshmallow. The dictionary paints a rich picture of city smells, which show that spaces vary just as much by the way they smell as the way they look.

London animals

The results gathered by locals and on social media showed a high level of accuracy, which is a testament to the power of smell.

Quercia tells PSFK:

The correlation between smell cluster and official air quality indicators are surprisingly high. Pollutant concentrations are positively correlated with the category of (traffic) emissions words and are negatively correlated with the category of nature-related words.

The team also used the results to create an urban smellwheel, which breaks down city scents into type such as food or animals, and to create color-coded maps of London and Barcelona by scent type.

Barcelona emissions

For Quercia, the research demonstrates the need to explore the power of the scent when designing urban areas.

He says:

Researchers need to study all types of smells – not only bad odors (as they typically do) but also pleasurable ones. If they were to do that, there would be a number of ways that the urban smellscape could be altered. A few examples include changing the street layout (to modify the air flow), pedestrianization (to lower traffic emissions), and planting trees (to create restorative environments)

London nature emissions

In the future, he imagines that people could use this data to plan journeys via the route that smells the best.

In the near future, new way-finding tools might well suggest not only shortest routes between points but also short ones that are olfactorily pleasant (e.g. runners might wish to avoid emission-infused streets). Our methodology allows for the development of new tools to map urban smellscapes. In addition to academic research, the general public might also benefit by contributing to the development of a critical voice for the positive and negative role that smell has to play in the city.

Smelly Maps suggests a future in which we could explore cities in a sensory way, taking the equivalent of the scenic route for our noses. Check out the urban smell dictionary to discover all of the scents you can find in London and Barcelona.

Smelly Maps

Girl smelling dandelions via Shutterstock

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