What Cities Smell Like, Visualised

By Jamie Condliffe on at

It's easy to notice on a street corner, but hard to track as you navigate an entire city: smell, despite being a crucial stimulus, is much harder to quantify than other sensory cues like sound or light. But that hasn't stopped Kate McLean from trying.

A PhD candidate in Information Experience Design at the Royal College of Art, McLean is slowly building up a catalogue of smells of the cities she visits. But crucially, she's also trying to work out how to visualise them across entire cities. Whether it's the gentle sweetness of cherry blossom, the warming waft of a freshly baked pretzel, or the potent herbal hit of cannabis, she's trying to map them all.

The video above shows Amsterdam, which might expect to reek of drugs. But in fact, McLean found rather more:

Instead spring 2013 in Amsterdam revealed an abundance of the warm, sugary, powdery sweetness of waffles. Oriental spices emanated from Asian and Surinamese restaurants and supermarkets, pickled herring from the herring stands and markets — a link to one of the city's key historical industries. Old books were detected in basement doorways and laundry aromas drifted up into the streets from Amsterdam's many house hotels.

Elsewhere she's also followed her nose around New York, Rhode Island, Paris, and Milan. They're all fascinating glimpses into a sensory world that's vital to us and yet difficult to pin down. [Kate McLean via Flowing Data]