Smells can tug at the memory banks, but they also help you work out where you are in the world, kind of like a GPS for the olfactory regions of the brain


The summer break is over, welcome back to the smelly grind of city life.

My summer break is over. No more walks on the beach in the fresh sea air. Long weekday breakfasts spent reading and eating eggs on toast with sautéed mushrooms are finished. I’m back at work, deadlines loom, and the city smells acrid from the fumes of vehicle exhaust.

A bus in Russia leaving a trail of black smoke. Photo: Ilya Plekhanov (C.C.)

I ride my bicycle most days. Winding tracks take me from the leafy streets of home to the tall skyscrapers and noisy intersections of a business district. Cars, buses and trucks cram together on the uneven bitumen. Often, I get stuck behind them, and their hot and smokey emissions rough up my nose. It makes me cough, hard. This is the tax I pay in bodily irritation to earn a living in the 21st century.

The smell of vehicle exhaust is common in cities across the world. Researchers are tracking it and other aromas by working with volunteers to create “smelly maps” online. Using volunteer observations of what different streets, parks and other places smell like, they match them with social media data and air quality maps to identify smell hotspots. It’s handy for the scent minded tourist: head to Boqueria market in Barcelona for the salivating aromas of frying squid, ripe strawberries or fresh donuts, and try to avoid the traffic pollution on London’s busiest roads.


"Street sweepers and scavengers earned a living from... selling manure to tanneries that used it to soften leather, or farmers for fertilizing their fields. These were the pungent smells of gainful employment."

We have long made sense of cities through smells. Cultural historians of aromas describe ancient Rome as one filled with the “piercing fragrance of burning myrrh emanating from temples, the heavy aroma of food being cooked by street vendors, the sweet, seductive scents of flowering gardens, the malodour of rotting fish at a fishstand, the sharp smell of urine from a public latrine and perhaps the incense trail of a passing procession honoring a god or hero.” For them, smells helped people in the city to determine their location and what to expect – a kind offline global positioning system for the olfactory regions of the brain.

But cities and their smells have changed over time. The dairies, factories and slaughterhouses of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries filled the air with the stench of cow dung, animal blood and bones or other organic byproducts. Street sweepers and scavengers earned a living from cleaning them up, with many selling manure to tanneries that used it to soften leather, or farmers for fertilizing their fields. These were the pungent smells of gainful employment.

Introducing His Offspring to the Fair City of London. Engraving by John Leech, 1858. 

The Portico of Octavia (Roman Fish Market). Oil on canvas by Albert Bierstadt, 1858.

Paris, New York and other cities became crowded with people, too. Their lack of good quality sewerage systems meant that human waste was often dumped in homes, rivers and the city streets. The smell of urine and excrement became part of living in the city. This waste also contributed to the spread of cholera and typhus. When scientists established that foul smells were the side effect of disease, not the cause, and deaths from disease increased, support was won for the use of flush toilets, and improved drainage and sewerage networks. The air of cities became cleaner, and their people less tolerant of odors generally.

Now, when I’m riding through the city and I smell the heavy and oily, or sweet and sickly, fumes of vehicle exhaust, my body tenses up, angry. I exhale quickly and keep on pedaling, putting up with it. On the streets lined with cafes, it takes all my willpower to resist stopping for hot chips. Their warm, fried smell is comforting after a long day of work. So too are the other aromas mixing in the air from food being prepared – ginger, garlic and cumin of spicy curries, pepper and hot salami on pizza, and crispy pastries of pies and sausage rolls. They make me nostalgic for the celebrations and meals I enjoyed during the end of year break.

Some quick eats in the city and their aromas. Photos: goat masala and lamb rogan josh (Alpha - C.C.); hot chips (James Withers).


Sigmund Freud once wrote that olfactory sensitivity was “archaic and dangerous, an animal relic and a failure of socialisation.” I disagree.

Sigmund Freud once wrote that olfactory sensitivity was “archaic and dangerous, an animal relic and a failure of socialisation.” I disagree. For me it is a visceral, revealing connection to one of late capitalism’s unsettling contradictions, and our relationship with the city. Many of us embrace them to pay our bills and enjoy life. Yet as we do this, we tolerate the ugly fumes of petrol dependent transport, and soothe ourselves with the quick fix of fast food. The city smells of a transience that carries long term costs to the environment, and our health.

Cities are big, sprawling places though, and full of possibility. I like to visit my favorite city gardens. There, beneath giant pine trees whose branches are heavy with needles, their sharp but pleasant scent combines with the woody smell of tanbark heaped in mounds nearby. It’s calming, grounding, and I lose track of time. These pockets of nature are shelters from the bustling train stations and congested roads. They offer subtle, scented resistance to the harsher parts of the world’s economic machine, and its pungent odours.

I find respite in them during those first few weeks back at work. In the middle of summer, when I want to be swimming or cooking or napping or doing anything but being caught in traffic, breathing space in the sweaty, busy, stinky grind of city life.

Nature offers respite from 'stinkier' smells of the the city. Photo: James Withers.


This story was published in The Guardian on 26 January, 2016. When writing, I applied techniques I have learned for ‘documenting’ smells of the city, and their history. It forms another part of my project, ‘Smellbourne - Exploring the Sweet Scents and Foul Odours of Melbourne, Past and Present'.



Second-hand Reality

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