Smell, Smellscape, and Place-Making: A Review of Approaches to Study Smellscape

Smell, Smellscape, and Place-Making: A Review of Approaches to Study Smellscape

Jieling Xiao (Birmingham City University, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-3637-6.ch010


Compared to sensory studies such as soundscape, thermal, and lighting comfort, smellscape is relatively less explored. Reviewing existing studies of smells and smellscapes can help researchers to better understand the field and bring insight for further research. This chapter starts explaining the smellscape concept consisted of four elements: smells and sources, human perceptions, physical environment, and context of places. It then reviews current approaches to investigate smellscapes and derives an integrated smellscape research framework from existing literature. Limitations and debates around designing smells are also addressed in this chapter. Based on the review, this chapter also outlines future research directions of smellscapes.
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This chapter reviewed current studies of smell perceptions and smellscapes to provide an overview of approaches to explore smellscape, from representation, assessment to modeling, design and evaluation. It also discussed challenges and future directions in this field.

The concept of smellscape emerged in parallel with the concept of soundscape in the late 1970s. Porteous (1985) introduced the concept of smellscape to describe the fragmented and space-time bounded human experience of places through smells. Like soundscapes, he also suggested smellscapes could be explored through ‘smell walks’ and interpreted with ‘smell maps’ and ‘smell marks’. However, unlike soundscape, smellscape In a recent discussion, Henshaw (2013, p. 5) suggested that smellscape can be understood as the overall smell environment of a place which can be experienced by humans at one point of time. The smell environment includes smells and smell sources, and physical settings of places. However, the human perception is the centre of the smellscape concept, influenced by perceivers’ individual differences, i.e. sensitivity to smells, smell preferences and memories of a place, varying along lines of past experiences, individual social and cultural contexts (Classen et al., 2002). Components in the smellscape concept, therefore, should involve the following:

  • Smells and smell sources, such as traffic and traffic fumes, trash bin and smell of trash, smoking smokers and cigarette smoke, toilet and smells of urine, etc.

  • Physical environmental settings, including location, built form, materials, topology, enclosure of space, smell sources, etc.

  • Time and weather. The smellscape can be precisely recorded at the time of a day, week and year. Weather includes factors as temperature, ventilation, wind and so on.

  • Human perception, including emotional, physiological and behavioural reactions, memory associations and thought processes. Perception is affected by the social and cultural context of the individual and related to personal life experience.

  • Characteristics of a place, like, history, culture, public or private, function, etc.

  • Unpredictable environmental issues, including traffic flow, events, crowds.

  • Other sensory mediation, such as vision, thermal comfort and sound.

Henshaw (2013, p. 172) also suggests that urban smellscapes can be explored at three scales: 1) micro level - a specific site-based scale; 2) midi level - neighbourhood district; 3) macro level - citywide area, revealing the multi-layered features of smellscape. The different smellscapes at different levels depends on how the perceiver positions himself/herself in the space when perceiving the surrounding smell environment. Thus, smellscapes involve different layers of perceptions: perceptions of smells, perceptions of environment and perceptions of place.


Perceptions Of Smells

Gibson (1966) described smells as ‘foreign’ components in the air that stimulate the olfactory receptors to perceive a volatile substance, which emphasizes the physical modality of smells. However, smells in spaces, as other sensory cues, also bring psychological impacts to their perceivers. Perceptions of smells in the environment give meanings to smells and the surrounding environment. Rodaway (2002) and Henshaw (2013) referred ‘perception’ to ‘experience’, emphasising the process of learning through thinking and feeling (Tuan, 1977). The immediate detection of smells in a place sets out a continuous mental process, involving various physical and psychological reactions such as adaptation, nuisance, preference, etc.

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