kate mclean: mapping the world of scents

Humans tend to guided by their eyes. A dog may bumble about sticking its nose into things to build up their map of the world but humans prefer to stick to lines etched on paper to guide us. Maps are useful, effective, and dull. A paper map can tell you where to go but gives you nothing of the experience of being there. Kate McLean’s smellmaps are changing that.

Kate McLean, Programme Director for Graphic Design at Canterbury Christ Church University, is an artist and designer who has created smellmaps of cities around the world. By speaking to locals, leading teams of volunteer ‘sniffers,’ and immersing herself in the aromas of a city she creates ways to represent aromas of a place. McLean says, “The combined body of work develops visual languages to demonstrate how the spatial and the temporal are of equal importance when considering the… environmental qualities of smell.” It’s said that we can never step in the same river twice; it might be just as apt to say we can never smell the same street twice. 

Kate’s work has already been revealing much about ourselves as well as the unseen scents around us. “Humans are indeed good at smelling out spaces when we focus attention on doing so... This refocus enables us to appreciate the riches afforded by smell in a place we think we know. It advocates for direct experience, and having confidence in our ‘sensing selves’.”

Here Kate takes us through the process of creating her smellmaps in five very different cities.



I designed “Smells and Scents of Paris” for a mini-exhibition – it was a prototype, an experimental piece that was researched and created in a very short period of time. The concept was to ‘map’ a city by its smells instead of the more commonly noted visual landmarks. I contacted a set of Parisian residents, (friends from when I had lived in Paris), and asked them to specify a singular, everyday Paris odour. Their responses were sometimes surprising; the smell of honey (which we eventually traced to the floor wax used to keep square kilometres of parquet flooring in good condition… Other smells were uncannily familiar, such as French drains and traces of Gauloise brown tobacco smoke... I was intrigued by the intensely personal, yet simultaneously prosaic, nature of everyday smells.

For the exhibition, I drew a city plan by hand and created amateur renderings of the scents in my Bruntsfield kitchen using sunflower oil and pure vodka as perfume bases. I purchased small perfume bottles from antique shops and pharmacies as containers for my homemade creations and placed them on bespoke-created mirrored shelves. The map doesn’t ‘show’ in a traditional sense, rather it affords an experience of a virtual smellwalk around a foreign city. 



“Smells of Auld Reekie on a very breezy day in 2011” uses findings from a vox pop of Edinburgh residents as to their distinctive Edinburgh whiffs. A wine merchant mentioned the pong of “boy’s toilets in primary schools” and a relative newcomer was passionate about the gentler aroma of “sea, sand, beach”. As a resident myself at the time and a runner I noticed how distinctive the “brewery malt fumes” were and how far they seemed to travel across the city.

The map is a visual rendition of smells in the air, it shows the potential of the wind to transfer smells across a city from their initial source location – we may not always see the originator of a smell. My decision to retain the odour source points resulted in visitors to the Edinburgh International Science Festival in 2011 locating specific Edinburgh streets, such as Leith Walk and the path through The Meadows, through the abundance of the odours represented.


New York’s Smelliest Blocks

The Smelliest Blocks was my first serendipitous smellmapping. As a tourist in New York in 2011 I was visiting a museum where I struck up a conversation with the shop salesperson. I mentioned I was a designer researching smells and she told me of an article recently published in the New York magazine and pointed me towards the city streets that had been the subject of the journalist’s investigation and cited as New York’s smelliest block. Intrigued, I went sniffing.

Despite the high temperatures of New York in the summer it was a strangely disappointing experience, and so I doubled the area covered (in case I had misunderstood) and also reversed my route to see what olfactory delights or otherwise I could detect. This map explores the visual potential of smell on a more intimate scale than I had achieved in Edinburgh, taking a single perspective and listing every smell encounter. It was only when plotting the smells, taking the architecture into account as containers for smells on a breeze-free day, that the relative olfactory richness of the street corners became apparent. 



“Flower Explosion – Spring Scents & Smells of the City of Amsterdam” used the human nose as the ultimate sensor to uncover everyday city smells. I crowdsourced the odours over a period of four days of a total of ten accompanied smellwalks in April 2013 with the support of IFF in The Netherlands and a small social media campaign to attract eager sniffers. The resulting dataset of over 650 named smells was initially intimidating to work with as each smell was personal to the individual smellwalker, so much so that I created a second mapping of smell associations to accompany the main smellmap. I classified the smells into commonly occurring categories before making a selection as to which were the most frequently mentioned smells of Amsterdam. Everyone expects cannabis to feature, and I was surprised to find that it did not make the top ten smells. However, a return visit to the city informed my nose that had I scheduled the walks for weekends or evenings the smellwalkers would likely have registered far more cannabis.

The final map depicts a single moment in smelltime, and the accompanying motion graphic shows the ephemerality of the smellscape as smells volatilise and disappear from the map’s surface.



“A Winter Smellwalk in Kyiv” returns to a smaller scale as it charts the trajectories of smell experience of seven individual smellwalkers. This was another serendipitous mapping that emanated from a twitter correspondence with a data journalist in Kyiv, where I was enjoying a winter break. The local volunteers smellwalked their city along a route that I hadn’t planned in advance. Over the past four years I have been I have developing the smellwalk methodology to includes discrete stages of “smell catching”, “smell hunting” and “free smelling”. The walk resulted in some lyrical descriptors including a projected “moments of joy” in reference to cigarette butts and an empty wine bottle in a plant pot by the river Dnieper and “summer in winter” in reference to a residual piece of moss in an otherwise monochromatic landscape, as well as locale-based aromas of “hot dog water” in the Maidan’s subterranean space and “tannenbaum” at the edge of the city forest.

The mapping shows the smell detection patterns of individuals; how they all smell at very different rates and detect at different intensities within the nested rhythms of a winter’s walk.

Those wanting to make their own scent map can download a guide from Kate’s website.

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