Victoria Henshaw Is a Research Associate at the University of Manchester's School of Environment and Development Who Focuses on the Role of Smell in Urban Design. She Talks to Olivia Edward about Why a Theme Park Recently Set about Trying to Find the Country's Most Pungent Urine and What People Might Really Be Thinking If They Say That They Don't like the Smell of Curry

By Edward, Olivia | Geographical, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Victoria Henshaw Is a Research Associate at the University of Manchester's School of Environment and Development Who Focuses on the Role of Smell in Urban Design. She Talks to Olivia Edward about Why a Theme Park Recently Set about Trying to Find the Country's Most Pungent Urine and What People Might Really Be Thinking If They Say That They Don't like the Smell of Curry


Edward, Olivia, Geographical


I first became interested in the link between the senses and urban design when I was working as a town-centre manager in Doncaster. One day, I went to a talk given by Charles Landry, the urban planner who wrote The Art of City Making. In his lecture, he talked about the use of colour in cities. It really blew my mind--I just hadn't thought about city planning in that way before.

I started doing more and more higher education courses and eventually realised the sensible next step was to do a PhD. My bursary allowed me to focus on anything to do with 24-hour cities and, as I was based with the acousticians at the University of Salford, who were looking at the positive role of sound in the environment, it made me wonder if any similar work had been done on smell. I did a bit of digging around and found that there was a real gap in the knowledge--to a researcher that's a gift.

Smell as a sense was relegated at the onset of modernism around the 18505. At that time, sight and sound began to be thought of as the noble senses, while smell, touch and taste began to be viewed as the lesser senses. The way our environments are organised today is very much around the way things look and sound, but I question whether this is a natural prioritisation.

As human beings, we experience the world through all of our senses. If one of the senses is missing, you just can't get that depth of experience. Marta Tafalla, a Spanish philosopher who was born without a sense of smell, says that the world is both a less beautiful and a less ugly place because she lacks a sense of smell.

The designers of theme parks and visitor attractions use this knowledge to provide people with a really vivid experience. A few years ago, Thorpe Park ran a competition to find the country's smelliest urine for their Saw Alive horror ride. They splashed the worst one all over the ride and people actually paid for that experience because it heightened their feelings of horror and terror.

Smell perception is all about context. When I carried out my PhD research, I took people on smell walks around Doncaster. Lots of them said that they didn't like the smell of fish, but they often enjoyed it in the old fish market because it was expected and enhanced their experience of the place. It was similar with the smell of sewage in Doncaster's medieval core--it acted as a smell mark and allowed people to navigate their way around the city.

I caution against designers dividing up smells into good smells and bad smells. Smell is very personal. We're not born with smell preferences; we learn them as we go along. The only exception is smells that stimulate the face's trigeminal nerve, such as cinnamon, paint and nail-varnish remover. …

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Victoria Henshaw Is a Research Associate at the University of Manchester's School of Environment and Development Who Focuses on the Role of Smell in Urban Design. She Talks to Olivia Edward about Why a Theme Park Recently Set about Trying to Find the Country's Most Pungent Urine and What People Might Really Be Thinking If They Say That They Don't like the Smell of Curry
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