Smell and The City

“Is that beef or sewage?” As I walk down Palace Gate with researcher Kate McLean, I write down the name of every smell that reaches my nose. We stop at restaurants, visit a vintage shop and we put our nose in a bin, we are doing the smellwalk. Since I wasn’t familiar with smell walking I was a bit apprehensive when I first met Kate in front of the Royal Academy of Arts. But to my own surprise, I left my embarrassment behind and started sniffing plants, fruit from stalls and even some old brick walls. I discovered London in a unique way.

Kate McLean in Brooklyn Photo: © Brian Harkin, Brian Harkin 2014

When I meet Kate in front of the college building, little drops of rain started dripping on our shoulders and we decide to wait inside for a bit. As a graphic designer, senior lecturer and PhD candidate, McLean has been studying smell for a several years and organised smellwalks all around the world from Paris to New York. She uses the information as data and translates it into colour-coded maps. “Scent is a part of our knowledge and it informs us, evokes emotions or it can bring back memories. In translating this into a map, smell becomes something visible,” she says while showing me her work. “I’m now working on an app where people can register what they smell or experience while walking through a city; this gives me more data to complete the map.”

But Kate explains that people are not that aware of smell anymore and often use their eyes first instead of nose first. “If people would take the time to smell their environment it could take them from an anonymous space into a very personal space where they become more aware of their surroundings.”

When Kate shows me a sensory map of London she enthusiastically tells me about her favourite place in the city. “Every time I walk along the South Bank from Tate Modern to the London Eye, I hear people talk about the salty smell that comes from the Thames and the delicious aromas from the restaurants. It’s a place with a lot of variety in smell.”

But today we won’t walk along the busy South Bank but we will explore the area of Kensington, from Hyde Park to Queens Gate Mews. She hands me a pen and paper and tells me to write down everything I smell during our walk, at the same time she warns me to leave my embarrassment behind since sniffing in public is completely legal!

When the rain has stopped, we make our way outside and start our walk at the Royal College of Art. I have to admit that I only expect to find the smell of car pollution and some coffee beans near a restaurant but after only a few seconds Kate stops and walks to the doors of an old building. “Did you smell that?” she says enthusiastically while making notes. But I have to disappoint her since I didn’t even realise that we started. When we cross the street and go to Hyde Park I try to be more open minded and suddenly I notice that every gust of wind comes with a pleasant smell. “I really like this and it reminds me of a lovely day during a holiday the summer.” Kate chuckles when she notices my desire to find the source of the scent. We try to hunt it down and get closer to the trees, smell the leaves and the flowers surrounding us. “Sometimes it’s very hard to link the odour to an object since we all have different perspectives on smell,” she says while sniffing one of the plants. “The interesting thing about smellwalks is that people often get a discussion about what they just observed and experienced.”

As I inhale all kinds or aromas, I try to write down my impressions. What was the intensity of the odour? How long did it last? And was the smell unexpected? When we walk past an outdoor café I’m ready to make notes but to my surprise I don’t smell any cheese sandwiches or freshly brewed coffee. “Sometimes the odours of food and drinks are removed by the large exhaust hoods.”

Disappointed by the lack of odour we leave the park and enter Palace Gate, which is full of fruit stalls, restaurants and shops. Kate takes me inside one of the shops that is filled with vintage fur coats, white lace dresses and second hand jeans. As I walk around and look at the neat lady behind the counter I start to smell a mixture of perfume and old, dusty clothes. “This shop perfumes their garments to disguise the second hand smell and to make it more pleasant for the customers,” says Kate while opening the door to go outside. When I ask her if she is now able to recognise more scents than an average person, she smiles. “I recognise more odours now because I did so many smellwalks, but I often get surprised by new smells or new interpretations from people who walk with me.” All of a sudden she stops at a restaurant and points at the extractor. “Is that beef or vegetables, it keeps changing.” I take a good sniff and wonder if it isn’t just the smell of sewage. We write down our findings and walk along Queens Gate Mews where the delicious smell of fresh flowers reach our nose.

Just around the corner we find a nice little pub and we decide to go inside, not to eat unfortunately but to take a good sniff. “You will normally find the smell of beer or other alcoholic drinks, but do you catch anything of a pint?” Kate asks while writing down her experience on paper. I shake my head, “No I don’t smell beer but it’s very pleasant, like croque monsieur and a hint of basil.” Kate smiles, “You’ve got it now! Maybe I’ve infected you and you won’t be able to go anywhere without constantly noticing all kinds of odours, just like me.” I smile as we make our way back to the college and I thank her for the lovely walk. As I walk to the nearest bus stop I think about what she said. Maybe I am infected, since I am much more aware of the odours that surround me now, but at the same time I really enjoyed walking through the rainy London in a way I never did before.

Interested in doing a group smellwalk with Kate McLean? You can get in touch via the website

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