Follow your nose to discover a new sense of urban life

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Forget the sounds of the city, it’s the smells which really count. Victoria Henshaw tells Sarah Freeman why she’s been sniffing around Yorkshire.

In York it’s chocolate. In Leeds on a good day when the wind is blowing in the right direction, it’s beer and in Doncaster, well no-one could put their finger on what the town smelt of. At least, not until Victoria Henshaw arrived and marshalled a group of residents to accompany her on what she likes to call a smell walk.

At set points, the group of 50 or so stopped, sniffed, made a note of the strongest aromas and moved on. After a couple of hours, Henshaw collected the data and together with similar research carried out in Leeds and Sheffield began plotting a map of the smells. Doncaster, it turned out smelt of coffee, Caribbean cooking and fresh fruit and vegetables.

“When you ask people what they think their city smells off, unless there’s something obvious like a brewery or a chocolate factory, nearby, they tend to say pollution and after a Saturday night a little hint of vomit,” says Henshaw, who, before returning to study at the University of Sheffield was once Doncaster’s town centre manager. “People tend to make negative associations with urban spaces and smells. In fact when you take people out and ask them to take a deep breath and smell the air around them the results can be surprising.

“Like most towns, Doncaster has a few places where you can smell car fumes, but somewhere like Copley Road has a real international flavour. You only need to stand for a few seconds to smell a whole range of different foods. When I was on the walks, you saw people suddenly change as they realised there were all these wonderful things around them.”

Aside from being an exercise in showing residents a different side of their city, the smell walks formed the basis of Henshaw’s PhD. The theme might have raised a few eyebrows in academic circles, but having spent her career involved in the design and planning of town and city centres, Henshaw had a hunch that smell had been overlooked.

“Developers spend millions of pounds designing buildings and invest massive amounts of time on the way things look. But despite all the effort that’s put in, they can still end up feeling like lonely places. I’d come across a lot of research which had looked at how cities sounded and suggestions for reducing noise pollution. It got me thinking, may be we should also consider how the places we live and work in smell.”

That original idea quickly grew into a thesis, which as well as shedding a little light on what really gets up people’s noses, does also have a practical application.

“There are already some companies which sell odours of cut grass which can be pumped into commercial businesses. The aim is to help conjure up the right atmosphere, the thinking being if the customer is greeted by a pleasant smell they are more likely to spend money.

“However, I hope the work I have done shows that there are more straightforward ways to improve aromas. If you have bus stops right outside a block of flats, the smell of the fumes can quickly get inside the properties.

“Sometimes, it’s just a question of moving the stop just a few yards down the road.

“It’s the same with traffic lights. Just by shifting them say from the top of a hill, you can almost instantly reduce the build of fumes which occur when cars and in particular buses, pull away.”

In a survey last year, London perhaps unsurprisingly came out top in a poll of the UK’s worst-smelling cities with people complaining not only of car fumes, but rotting food in overflowing bins and an overpowering stench from public toilets. Birmingham, Coventry, Swansea and Glasgow completed the top five.

Certainly the country’s urban centres smell a lot sweeter than they did a few hundred years ago when the sewerage system left a lot to be desired, but having just presented her research to an influential conference in Chicago, Henshaw believes that much more can be done.

“With a little thought it’s relatively simple to improve wind flow around developments to help disperse unpleasant smells or alternatively build structures which keep pleasant smells, like fresh fruit and vegetables on market stalls, to linger a little longer.

While her PhD is now complete, Henshaw is determined to keep her nose to the ground, but after all her various walks around Yorkshire’s towns and cities, her favourite smell remains mountain pine trees.

“You never know, I might eventually persuade someone to plant a few in Doncaster.”