Urban smell enthusiasts
All images by Steve Hill Photography
If you don’t read the papers on a regular basis, or are reading this from outside the UK, then in all likelihood you haven’t seen the article ran by The Guardian this week on my work exploring city smells. To view the article on line, click here.
In addition to the article written by Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian’s Architecture and Design Critic, the piece was also accompanied by a list of five top tips for smell-walking written by myself, and I have included these below to help you in sniffing out smells in your own cities… so go to it folks and adventure!
1. Avoid smell walking when you have a cold or other illness – and in particular, when you have a hangover. You simply won’t experience the smells in the same way: smell performance can be significantly dulled by illness, while if we’re feeling particularly nauseous, then the smell of cigarette smoke, a festering drain or local dustbin lorry probably isn’t going to do any favours. Also, stay hydrated: your nose requires a healthy level of fluids in order to dissolve the odours so our smell receptors can ‘read’ them in the first place.
2. The greater the variety of settings, the bigger the range of odours we’ll detect and the more we can learn on the journey. Think open spaces and enclosed areas, green spaces and hard concrete landscapes, quiet areas and busy roads, busy high streets and run-down alleys behind buildings, retail, markets and other food.
3. Use your other senses to seek out smell sources. If you see planting, approach it and as long as it isn’t someone’s prize-winning rose bush, rub the leaves and explore what scent they release. Look at the shops around you and stick your head inside for a sniff – pharmacies, stationers and clothing shops can all be interesting. Ask yourself if you can hear any ventilation systems whirring in the background: you’d be surprised at the fun you can have in an alleyway behind a row of shops, trying to guess what kind of shop it is by the smell it is emitting.
4. While our bodies are working hard, day-in day-out, to detect all kinds of different smells, we don’t register the majority of those we sniff. For that reason, smell walking works best if we try to focus on what we can smell – so cut out the chatter. If you enter an environment but the smell quickly starts to fade, this might be your smell receptors tiring – we call this ‘adaptation’. To counteract adaptation, roll up your sleeve and sniff the skin in the crook of your arm for a moment. Although you might feel a bit daft, this will give your smell receptors an opportunity to rest and reset, so you should then be able to detect the smellscape around you again.
5. Leave embarrassment at home with your high heels and flip-flops when you embark on a smell walk; you’ll get a great deal more out of the experience if you throw off the shackles of worrying what others think of you. Forget your mother’s voice in your head telling you not to smell the dirty pavements – sniff the good, sniff the bad, sniff the boring and sniff the downright balmy … you’ll be amazed by what you might discover in the process.