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Sniffy about the city? Just take a deep breath

19 Mar 2012

A University of Manchester researcher says planners and architects should take the sense of smell more seriously when they are designing cities.

Dr Henshaw
Dr Henshaw

Dr Victoria Henshaw from The University of Manchester has been leading a series of “smellwalks” across cities in Britain, Europe and America, to find out how odours influence their relationship with of the local environment.

Her latest walk in Manchester will follow a meeting of some of the leading lights on the subject-  including smell artists and local authority urban designers.

The University’s Manchester Architecture Research Centre researcher said: “The study of people’s everyday experiences of odour enables us to draw attention to key urban issues such as air quality, public health, social inclusion.

“And many people do not realize that the smell environments in cities are changing : Pollution, for example, breaks down a smell as it travels through the air so that odours of vegetation are less likely to be detected.

“The strong smells of traffic pollution also frequently overlay, or mask, other smells in the environment so we are less able to detect them.”

She added: “All of our senses - including smell - help us understand the world around us.

“But it isn’t until people lose their smell that they come to appreciate the important role and influence it has in our everyday lives.

“Unique combinations of scents are stored in the back of our memories for long periods of time, and they are frequently at the forefront of our consciousness when first visiting unfamiliar territory.”

Dr Henshaw’s smellwalks have revealed different cities can vary significantly, as well as the way that local people respond to the odours they detect.

She said: “My research shows how smell plays an important role in people’s experiences and perceptions of different places.

“People frequently detect many more odours in cities than they might imagine, and without thinking about it, often associate specific smells with specific places.”

According to Dr Henshaw, residents in Manchester, often recall the smells of the Boddingtons factory from the past as well as other industrial odours.

They talk about the smells of the traffic and the buses in the city, the smell of the canal and plants in the small parks and green areas.

A favourite Mancunion odour seem to be that of food, with lots of people mentioning the smell of the Chinatown area and that of Rusholme’s curry mile.

Manchester has been home to a campaign when the air was scented with coffee smells, to celebrate the opening of a bar in The Triangle Shopping Centre in 2005

The Imperial War Museum included the smell of the trenches in their exhibition of World War 1 in 2010

And last month, Mancunians were able to detect the smell of jacket potatoes in specially equipped bus-stops as part of a smell-advertising campaign.

Notes for editors

Dr Henshaw has organised a conference at The University of Manchester on 19 March from 12 noon to 4.30pm, which will be attended by academics, businesses, city designers and managers.

Journalists are welcome to attend a smellwalk on April 20.

Images are available

Follow Dr Henshaw via Twitter on @VictoriaHenshaw.

For media enquiries contact:

Mike Addelman
Press Officer
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881567