When David Howes thinks of his hometown of Montreal, he thinks of the melodies of chimes and the smell of bagels being baked over wood fires. But when he asked his local tourism office where they recommended visitors to smell, taste and hear the city, he got nothing but blank looks.
“They only know what there is to see, but nothing about the city’s other sensory attractions, their sound and smell brands,” says Howes. His interest in it is no coincidence: he is the author of the book “The Sensory Studies Manifesto” and director of Concordia University’s Center for Sensory Studies, a center for the growing field often referred to as “sensory urbanism.”
Around the world, researchers like Howes are studying how non-visual information defines a city’s character and affects its quality of life. Using methods ranging from low-tech soundwalks and scent maps to data collection, wearables and virtual reality, they combat what they see as limiting visual biases in urban planning.
The sounds of a city
“If you close your eyes for just 10 minutes, you get a completely different feel for a place,” says Oğuz Öner, a scientist and musician.
For years, Öner has organized sound walks in Istanbul, where blindfolded participants describe what they hear in different places. In his research, he found places where vegetation could be planted to deaden the noise of traffic, or where a wave organ could be built to amplify the soothing sounds of the sea, which he was amazed to find people hearing even by the water can hardly hear.
According to Öner, the local authorities have expressed an interest in his findings, but have not yet included them in the city’s plans. But this type of individual feedback about the sensory environment is already being used in Berlin, where quiet areas identified by citizens using a free mobile app have been included in the city’s latest noise action plan. Under EU law, the city is now obliged to protect these areas from an increase in noise.
“The way quiet areas are designated tends to be very top-down, based either on land use or on higher-level parameters such as distance to motorways,” explains Francesco Aletta, research associate at University College London. “This is the first example I know of of something driven by perception becoming politics.”
How do people react to acoustic environments?
As a member of the EU funded project Soundscape Indexes helps Aletta create predictive models for how people respond to different acoustic environments. To do this, he compiles recorded soundscapes, whether lively or calm, into a database and then tests the neural and physiological responses they trigger. Experts say this type of tool is needed to create a practical framework that ensures that multi-sensory elements are incorporated into cities’ design criteria and planning processes.
How best to find out how people react to different sensory environments is a matter of debate in the scientific community. Howes and his colleagues take a more ethnographic approach, using observation and interviews to develop a set of best practices for good sensory design in public spaces. Other researchers are going more high-tech, using wearables to capture biometrics such as heart rate variability as proxies for emotional responses to various sensory experiences. The EU-funded GoGreenRoutes project takes this approach by examining how nature can be integrated into urban spaces in ways that improve both human and ecological health.
“We create a lexicon of elements and their combination to create a complete spatial experience,” says Daniele Quercia of Nokia Bell Labs Cambridge and the Center for Urban Science and Progress at King’s College London, one of the researchers working on the project. Quercia has previously helped develop ‘Chatty Maps’ and ‘Smelly Maps’, which used social media data to capture sounds and smells around the city. The latter project found strong correlations between people’s odor perceptions and traditional air quality indicators. at GoGreenRoutes he will use wearable technologies to assess whether improving the design of new and existing green spaces has the predicted (and desired) impact on people’s well-being.
Sounds and smells for Virtual Reality
At Deakin University in Australia, architecture professor Beau Beza strives for full immersion. His team adds sounds, and eventually smells and textures, to virtual reality environments that city governments can use to present planning projects to stakeholders. “Static representations of a streetscape, a park, or a square on paper are difficult for many people to visualize,” says Beza. “Being able to walk through them and hear what they sound like increases understanding.”
As data collection about people’s sensory experiences becomes more widespread, many of these experts warn that privacy and surveillance concerns must be addressed. Equality and inclusion issues also come into play when it comes to whose sensory experiences are considered in planning. Underprivileged urban communities tend to bear the brunt of noise and odor pollution from highways and factories, but are also often the target of noise complaints, for example when their neighborhoods are upgrading.
“Sense perceptions are not neutral or simply biological; whether we find something pleasant or not is culturally and socially shaped,” says Monica Montserrat Degen, an urban cultural sociologist at Brunel University London. In both London and Barcelona, urban planners are using her research into the perception of public space and how what she calls “sensory hierarchies” include or exclude different groups of people.
Degen cites the example of a London neighborhood where trendy cafes have replaced cheap eateries that served as meeting places for the local youth. “It used to smell like fried chicken in here,” she says, but the new residents found the smell more off-putting than inviting. “Now it smells like cappuccino”.