Smell and travel

What a great article on smell-designing cities. It’s an interview with Victoria Henshaw, a research associate in the University of Manchester’s Department of Architecture, about her journeys around Doncaster and Sheffield and it includes lots of interesting discussions about smell and location.

Smell is often ignored in our remembering of place. People return from holiday and they tend to look at pictures or drink wine from the place they’ve visited, but rarely are smells remembered and revelled in. It’s strange because smell is clearly one of the most powerful senses for evoking memory. Apparently there is a strong connection between smell and memory, which can be explained by the way our brains are wired: the olfactory system has a pathway in the brain closely associated with the limbic system, so while vision tends to dominate the senses, odours can have this particular nostalgic effect.

Another interesting point from the interview was that people can find smells stimulating or repulsive depending on context and on the person. This study of smells in classical and contemporary travel writing found writers associated negative smells with cities and positive smells with the country, despite the fact that the country can be a particularly pungent place.

There were a lot of people who said they didn’t like the smell of fish. But Doncaster is famous for its fish market, and when we went into the fish market on the walk, even those people who said that they didn’t like the smell of fish actually enjoyed it when they experienced it within the context of the market. They expected to smell fish there — it’s a fish market, so how else would it smell? — and it enhanced their experience of the market.

The contrasting reactions to Doncaster’s Copley Road, where immigration had led to a profusion of competing smells from different cooking (Thai, Afghan, Turkish), was interesting. Some people liked these smells and felt they were cosmopolitan, while others hated them and felt they were pollution by foreigners. It’s remarkable that the same smells can provoke such opposite reactions, but it does reveal the power of smell.

One last thing. I found this great project about one hundred smell memories. It’s a lovely idea and one I would like to copy. How about if we all had smell memories documented alongside our digital images?