Sense and the City, Part 1: Your Nose Knows

Scent in the City - Blossoms in Fernwood SquareThe other day I wasn’t just walking through the city, I was stomping.

My mind was a swirl of angry thoughts and I was moving fast across the pavement.  I was completely focused inside my head and paying exactly zero attention to the world around me. Not the gathering dusk or other people or the buildings.  They were technically in my sight, but as far as my mind was concerned were not really “there.” 

I’m honoured to be collaborating with the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network on a series of posts about observing (and shaping) our cities.  This is the first installment.  Posts will appear both here and at the GVPN site:

And then, just like that, I got one whiff of the blossoms from an immense ornamental cherry tree overhanging the path and it cut through the fog of my thoughts like a knife of sensation.  One breath of the air under that tree and it interrupted my internal nattering chatter midstream.  It recalled me back to the city and back to the now and made me stop and gaze up at its massive limbs.  In that instant, it put everything else in perspective.

Such is the power of scent, a sense hardwired to the most ancient part of our brain but one that we often forget about when we’re considering a new development’s “plan view” or sitting watching the city flow past us. When I was thinking about embarking on a series of posts about observing the city, the often forgotten yet unquestionable power of scent made me want to tackle it first.

Place Has a Scent

When thinking about turning space in the city into places we love and care about, we shouldn’t forget what our noses know.

Chances are if I asked you to think about your favorite places from your childhood or from last summer, and then I asked what they smelled like, a scent “picture” of sorts would form in your head. Good smells and bad stinks alike, scent immediately anchors places and times in our heads like no other.

Trees in bloom in James Bay's Turner Street.

South Turner Street trees in bloom, Victoria, B.C.

The air outside our neighborhood’s bakery on my early evening walk from work, the smell of the high school field, the Hall’s honeysuckle that blooms every summer on the side of our house: these are all the clues that help tell me I’m home.  Likewise the less-than-sweet scents that act just as strongly as road posts to place: the thick mud of low tide on my lunchtime walks, the visceral smell of our street when the winter fruit falls off the boulevard ginkgo trees, some of the pulp mill cities that I visit through my work.

Whether it makes you breathe deeper or wrinkle your nose, there’s no doubt that scent is a powerful part of how we observe and interact with the city.

Making Use of Scent and Place

So if the immediacy of scent is such a powerful potential tool, how might we use it when considering how to transform spaces into places?

Here are a few thoughts I’ve come up with and I’m curious to hear about what you might add:

  • Remember to breathe.  As Ms. Jacobs often reminded us, making great cities doesn’t start with making great plans but instead taking the time to observe what’s really going on.  Take some time to sit, be still and be present with a space.  And as part of this, take the time to breathe and notice: what do you smell? Is it different from other places? Good or bad?  How does the scent change depending on the time of day or the season?  How might you add to this, change it or draw attention to it?
  • Smell the roses, really. I always think that the chief mission of placemaking needs to not just be the creation of lovely places but the validation that everyone has the capacity and right to belong to a community and shape their city.  How we live ourselves creates these social norms and moves us from thinking of ourselves as “city consumers” to “community producers.”
    • So, yes, say hello to those you pass AND do take the time to stop and smell the roses/blossoms/lavender shrubs/narcissus that you encounter along the way.  Will you feel silly the first few times you publicly stop in your tracks to lean over a fence and give a bloom a good sniff?  Maybe.  But an exuberant city requires people to live exuberantly and your small step of unabashedly interacting with your city lets others know that it’s okay to do the same.

      Wallflowers bridge the edge between sidewalk and sunny rock wall and offer color and scent to passersby.

      Wallflowers bridge the edge between sidewalk and sunny rock wall and offer color and scent to passersby.

  • Use edges strategically One of David Holmgren’s Permaculture Design Principles is to “Use edges and value the marginal,” since “the interface between things is where the most interesting events take place.”  This principle of “edges” plays out in many different ways in terms of how we might design our communities and homes, including everything from front porches to sidewalk cafes to river trails.
    • In terms of scent in the city, the idea of the edge can be implemented in a very literal way by planting things that will smell good where they can be noticed and reached by the “rose smellers” described above. Plant a few nice smelling things on the outside of your fence, along a wall or beside the sidewalk where people will brush past.
  • Pass on what you know Plants can be a way to add good smells, greenery, shade and things to eat in a city.  However, while there seems to be a sizable overlap between placemakers and those who garden, not everyone in a community is going to be aware of which plants are worth a sniff.  This is especially going to be true for younger citizens and those who have come to our communities from other places.
    • Again, your own behaviour is going to help show others what plants are special and that yes, it’s okay to scrunch the library’s lavender bushes as you pass.

      Sample fragrant plant icon, this one from the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants (

      Sample fragrant plant icon, this one from the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants (

    • You may also want to consider adding signage like “My name is ____ and I smell good” beside a plant in a boulevard garden or including icons for fragrant plants on your project proposal map in addition to just the plant names.
    • I also wonder whether signage referring to scent can help us link to the historic context of our cities.  For instance, one heritage building in my neighbourhood used to be a major bakery at the turn of the last century.  What if signage in the nearby square started “Stop: can you smell bread baking?  In 1903, when bakers Rennie and Taylor built on this site, you would have smelled their Butternut bread…”

But what about the bad and the ugly?

Much as I might want to wax on about good smells, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that experiences are not universal.  Allergies, asthma and other conditions related to breathing affect many in our community.  The same cherry blossoms that recalled me back to spring in the city in a positive way will herald a period of health concerns for others.

As well, we need to let our noses guide our advocacy around air quality, keeping in mind that not everything that affects our lung health has a smell.  What are the issues that affect your community air?  How might we continue to improve our air sheds through policies, legislation, engagement with business and public investment?  Is there a process in place to track your community’s air quality?  (In Canada, this is tracked nationally for select communities through Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Air Quality Health Index; additional tracking may be available for your community at the local government  or community group level).

Dimensions of Place

Building beautiful, vibrant communities with a sense of place takes a lot of doing.  AND, doing it well  also requires taking the time to be and to observe.    Paying attention to what our noses know–and in my own case, letting the odd cherry blossom tree tell me to smarten up–is part of that equation.

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