Imagine yourself at Flinders Street train station. 


Smellbourne: What do the smells of Melbourne mean to you?

The doors of your air conditioned train carriage open, and you walk along a crowded platform. You pass a store selling long, golden fingers of chips that smell like onions and cheese. In the concourse, baristas are hard at work, and you catch a whiff of woody and chocolate-like coffee. Someone walks briskly past you, a sweet, strawberry scent trailing after them, probably from lip gloss. You head out onto the street, turn the corner, and then it hits you, like a punch in the face: an acrid, burning smell from the exhaust of a small truck stuck at a red light.

You cough hard, and keep on walking. You find yourself thinking of carbon monoxide. Your lungs. The Earth’s atmosphere. And the last bill you received for getting your car serviced. As you wipe the grime from your mouth, you ask yourself, “Is this worth it? How much am I willing to pay for life in Melbourne?”And, “Do the smells of Melbourne match its reputation?”

Vehicle exhaust. Photo: Ilya Plekhanov (C.C.)

Stories of smells telling us what it feels like to live in Melbourne...

What is Smellbourne?

I'm writing a book of non-fiction exploring how life in Melbourne has changed over time through stories of odors and aromas. My book is called 'Smellbourne'.

To help write Smellbourne, I am interviewing people living in Melbourne about the smells they notice as part of their every day life, and the ones they remember growing up.

Why write this book?

Many people love Melbourne. Many people enjoy talking about smells, too.

Melbourne is considered one of the most livable cities in the world, but it also has many problems - for example, housing affordability, climate change and chronic health conditions are big issues.

Finding out how people make sense of Melbourne’s contradictions, through their sense of smell, offers a fresh perspective on who they are, and what they value, during a rapidly changing 21st century.

Smell is a vivid and emotional connection to memory.

Riding around smelling Footscray. Photo: James Withers

Tell me about smells you notice

I'd love to hear from you! Contact me to learn more about interviews and focus groups.

In addition to residents of Melbourne, I'm looking to speak with: artists, scientists and other professionals; people with a heightened sense of smell; or people without a sense of smell.

I am conducting most inteviews and other research during 2017. Once the research is complete, I will write the book manuscript and begin pitching to publishers in 2018.

I'm available to speak about the project at book groups, libraries, creative writing workshops, historical societies and others interested in this work.

Top to bottom: flowers, spray paint cans and souvlaki in Melbourne. Photos: Kim Tairi.

The science of how we smell

"Scientists say we smell when we suck up air into our nostrils and over millions of olfactory receptor neurons. Odor molecules in the air stimulate and inhibit the receptors, writes Cory Binns in Live Science. Each aroma sets off the signal made by the receptors, travels along the olfactory nerve to the olfactory bulb, (sitting right underneath the front the brain). Signals from that bulb are what tell your brain what smells."

The strange science behind our sense of smell, D G McCullough, The Guardian.

Above: View across to Melbourne from Footscray. Photo: James Withers.


My approach to researching Smellbourne is partly inspired by Sliwa and Riach's study of Polish city dwellers' "smell experiences" before and after the collapse of socialism.

The photo "Flinders Street Station, Melbourne" (2000), by Debra McFadzean, is from State Library of Victoria (copyright holder).



Footscray Stinks?
Wake Up, Smell the Coffee

Copyright 2016-2022 Ben O'Mara