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Mapping Your City's Smells

Data scientists at the University of Cambridge explore how urban odors can guide better city design.
The smell of emissions in London, with the worst scents of fuel, gasoline and dust in the darkest red.
The smell of emissions in London, with the worst scents of fuel, gasoline and dust in the darkest red. Daniele Quercia, Rossano Schifanella, Luca Maria Aiello, Kate McLean; designed by Rossano Schifanella

What can we learn from pausing, deeply inhaling and smelling—yes, smelling—our cities? A new paper from University of Cambridge researchers argues that while urban planners and policymakers have a lot to say about road diets, the sharing economy, and housing policy, too little attention has been paid to urban smellscapes, those scents that emanate from and so influence urban life.

So the scientists, led by researchers Daniele Quercia and Kate McLean, got to work. First, they took local volunteers on a series of “smellwalks,” jaunts around seven global cities during which participants identified distinctive urban smells. From this exercise, the researchers created a comprehensive urban smell dictionary, including less pleasant odors (“exhaust,” “manure,” “trash,” “putrid,” and “vomit” among them) and downright lovely-sounding ones (“lavender,” “fruity,” “BBQ,” and “baked,” for example).