The exploration of hidden hydrology takes many forms. While often focusing on the visual through maps and illustrations, and the verbal, through documents and texts, there’s a range of other sensory experiences that connect lost rivers and buried creeks to our modern life.
It is vital to connect the lost experiences with actual places, if only help imagine what was there previously, as well as to, surprisingly, find the traces and fragments of the palimpsest that remains after decades or even centuries of erasure. Beyond the idea of just being mere ground-truthing as a method of connecting the maps and texts to actual places, is the ability to engage other senses of touch, hearing, and We engage and use our brains differently when we’re outdoors versus indoors, as a recent study showed that “…brain activity associated with sensing and perceiving information was different when outdoors, which may indicate that the brain is compensating for environmental distractions.”
At the root of this is physically experiencing spaces through exploration and discovery. While we will dive into the more specific literature and potential for walking/flâneury in this context of exploration that encompasses our collective sensory experience, for now we will focus on some relevant overlapping themes in terms of specific focused sensing in a spatial frame – specifically soundscapes and smellscapes. Some, but not all of these fit exactly in the tighter sphere of hidden hydrology, however all do provide valid paths of inquiry that could be directly applied to increasing our understanding and engagement with these buried, disappeared, worlds.
As with all of these explorations, this quickly expanded beyond one post, so I’m focusing first on the concept of smell – and will follow up subsequently with elaboration on other sensory subjects.
The sounds and smells of water are powerful sensory experiences, which can evoke a range of emotions, hint of hidden landscapes, confront and astound then sooth and delight. There’s also a strong historical element, outlined beautifully in this CityLab article ‘Sense and the City‘, which discusses Carolyn Purnell’s book ‘The Sensational Past: How the Enlightenment Changed the Way We Use Our Senses’. in which she shows through explorations of noise, smell, and more over the span of history, “….while our bodies may not change dramatically, the way we think about the senses and put them to use has been rather different over the ages.”
It is no accident that the events around what led to the massive reconfiguration of London through the burial of rivers into pipes is known as the ‘Great Stink‘, driven by growing water pollution and hot weather which causing a mass exodus due to the notion that the smells could transmit disease, which was coupled with recent cholera outbreaks. As mentioned in the Wikipedia article “The problem had been mounting for some years, with an ageing and inadequate sewer system that emptied directly into the Thames. The miasma from the effluent was thought to transmit contagious diseases, and three outbreaks of cholera prior to the Great Stink were blamed on the ongoing problems with the river.” The scientist Michael Faraday, who investigated and wrote a letter on the poor conditions of the Thames, is depicted in this Punch Cartoon from 1855 holding his nose and “…giving his card to Father Thames”, commenting on Faraday gauging the river’s “degree of opacity”
And while access to land and reduction of negative impact so the irony of much urban modernization of rivers by burying them was often driven by smells, fear of pollution via miasma, or legitimate issues with outbreaks like cholera, the so called “Monster Soup” via the 1828 image by William Health depicting the water of the Thames.
Expanding that notion, I recall this map, via CityLab, of the ‘Stench Map” from the “Charles F. Chandler Papers,” Columbia University Rare Books and Manuscript Library, which was described as a “Map Showing Location of Odor Producing Industries of New York and Brooklyn, circa 1870”
They quote Virginia Tech historian Melanie Kiechle and author of the recent book “Smell Detectives“, who is quoted in the article about the fascination and challenge of spatially representing sensory data: “Trying to show smells, which are not concrete—they’re invisible, they’re ephemeral, they’re always changing…”. She also authored this paper in Journal of Urban History called ‘Navigating by Nose: Fresh Air, Stench Nuisance, and the Urban Environment, 1840–1880” [paywalled] where she mentions “City dwellers used their understanding of stench nuisance as detrimental to health to construct smellscapes or olfactory maps of New York City. Such maps identified health threats and guided movements through or out of the city.”
And another, referenced in this Instagram from the NY Public Library Map Division, entitled “Going the whole hog. The odiferous Midtown West in 1865”, which shows this excerpt from a map “Region of Bone Boiling and Swill-Milk Nuisances” found in “Report of the Council of hygiene and public health of the Citizens’ Association of New York upon the sanitary condition of the city” published by The Citizens’ Association of New York. Council of Hygiene and Public Health in 1865″
The short of it was, in the mid 19th Century, cities were often foul and disgusting places, and, if you want a more thorough and frightening description of the above, visit CityLab’s post “The Sanitary Nightmare of Hell’s Kitchen in 1860s New York” which describes conditions that inevitably existed throughout many cities at the time. For rivers, this meant modernization, none as famous as the sewerization of London by Joseph Bazalgette, which tackled the issues of urban pollution and flooding in the mid to late 1800s, while also opening up room for development.
This approach served as a model for many areas around the world confronting similar issues, and serves as perhaps the greatest driver of buried creeks and hidden hydrology in modern cities. Not solely based on smell, but it was definitely a factor. In entombing these rivers, we cut off the bad but also vacated the positive associations of the smell of water that couple nostalgia via memory. Good and bad, the evocation of smells of water – ocean funk, tidal salt/fresh water mixing, freshness of a bubbling creek, wet grass, and all things in between have strong impacts on our experiences. One of these concepts mentioned recently in writings I recall, including both a chapter in Cynthia Barnett’s book “Rain: A Natural and Cultural History“, and featured as Robert Macfarlane’s word of the day, is the concept of “petrichor,” which is much more complex but can be simplified as the smell air before, or after rain, which is so evocative as to support an entire industry, outlined in detail in an Atlantic article by Barnett “Making Perfume from the Rain“.
The role smell plays in our experience and enjoyment of places is often not discussed specifically, beyond nuisances, so it is heartening to see artists, designers, and planners taking on this specific area for study. We will expand more on the water-specific aspects of this in the future, but for now, a great intro is this wonderful meditation on ‘The Conservation of Smellscapes” from the blog Thinking like a Human, which captures the idea better than I, and which also references a couple of the smellscape pioneers which we will discuss in more length below.
Anyone interesting in the topic of smellscapes has inevitably come across the amazing work of Kate McLean, especially with recent write-ups in Atlas Obscura, The New Yorker, BBC News, and Co.Design to name a few. McLean is an artist and designer and current PhD candidate who focuses on sensory research which is found at her site Sensory Maps. and you can follower her as well on her Twitter account @katemclean. In her websites explanatory text, she mentions the techniques and use of the visual to represent the sensory: “The tools of my trade include: individual group smellwalks, individual smellwalks (the “smellfie”), smell sketching, collaborative smellwalks, graphic design, motion graphics, smell generation and smell diffusion, all united by mapmaking”
A 2015 story on “Mapping Your City’s Smells” discusses some of her work, specifically for London, where they developed a ‘dictionary’ of urban smells, “…including less pleasant odors (“exhaust,” “manure,” “trash,” “putrid,” and “vomit” among them) and downright lovely-sounding ones (“lavender,” “fruity,” “BBQ,” and “baked,” for example).” An aroma wheel developed by the team, captures the complexity of these smells.
From this, they used words in geotagged social media posts to capture a spatial picture of these elements, then mapped them based on concentrations in a Pollock-esque composition showing bad smells along red tones and nature smells in greens. As noted: “The researchers envision these maps being used in a variety of ways. Urban planners, they suggest, can use them to figure out which areas of the city smell the worst—and then consider using air-flow manipulation, green spaces, and pedestrian-friendly streets to change them. Maybe computer scientists will one day create a wayfinding app that gives users the most pleasant-smelling path to their destination. Or maybe city officials will be inspired to use social media data to more consistently monitor how their residents are being affected by smells—and by the pollution that creates it.”
An online map of this data also exists from McLeans collaborators Daniele Quercia, Rossano Schifanella, and Luca Maria Aiello, under the auspices of goodCitylife.
Smelly Maps provides an interactive version of the data for London, with some additional Info about this: “Think about your nose. Now think about big data. You probably didn’t realize it, but your nose is a big data machine. Humans are able to potentially discriminate more than thousands different odors. On one hand, we have our big data nose; on the other hand, we have city officials and urban planners who deal only with the management of less than ten bad odors out of a trillion. Why this negative and oversimplified perspective? Smell is simply hard to measure. SmellyMaps have recently proposed a new way of capturing the entire urban smellscape from social media data (i.e., tags on Flickr pictures or tweets). Cities are victims of a discipline’s negative perspective, only bad odors have been considered. The SmellyMaps project aims at disrupting this negative view and, as a consequence, being able to celebrate the complex smells of our cities.”
Zooming in, you get a breakdown on the relative smell density and dominant smell in a dashboard style.
On the interactive side, a smellwalk project from 2014 for Amsterdam gives a good overview of the process, where multiple people walk and record information, with “Over 650 smells were detected by 44 people undertaking 10 smellwalks over a period of 4 days in April 2013. Based on written descriptions from the smellwalkers, 50 broad categories were identified. Both frequently-mentioned and curious smells feature on the map.”
She provides a short description of the results, discussing her expectation of cannabis instead replace with the reality of waffles, spices, herring, laundry, flowers and leaves detected by participants.
“Dots mark the origins of the smells, concentric circles indicate their range and the warped contours allude to potential smell drift in the north- and south-westerley winds encountered on the days of the smellwalks. It is estimated that humans have the capacity to discriminate up to 1 trillion smells and our experience is highly individual; to walk and sniff is to know.”
The color legend breaks down specific dominant smells (both frequently-mentioned and ‘curious) derived from the 650 smells, and a subset of the 50 categories.
The graphical quality of these maps amplifies the the experiential quality, which also I believe makes them more engaging to wider audiences of designers and planners. The magnitude lines offer an opportunity to zoom in on some specific comments displayed in an engaging way.
A video of this Smellmap Amsterdam is worth a look also:
Smellmap Amsterdam©KateMcLean2014 from RCA IED on Vimeo.
The 2017 New Yorker article “The Graphic Designer Who Maps the World’s Cities By Smell” shows a more localized example, as the author, guided by a kit she downloaded from McLean’s site, later mapped by McLean herself in Greenwich Village. One of McLean’s own earlier endeavors looked at some specific blocks in New York, with a hyperlocal exercise,inspired by another article from New York Magazine ‘The Smelliest Block in New York‘.
The work blending art and science is a great model, and the representation offers some good lessons for mapping less concrete elements in the urban landscape. The further parallel with hidden hydrology is in being able to interpret the unseen, as McLean mentions in the Atlas Obscura post, ““Participants are often surprised about how many odors can be detected if you really pay attention to smell,” McLean says. “Humans can differentiate a trillion different smells but we breathe about 24,000 times a day. Much of it can easily go unnoticed.” “
Another pioneer in the field is Victoria Henshaw, who sadly passed away in 2014. She provided another strong voice in the field of smell, authoring a 2013 book on the subject, Urban Smellscapes: Understanding and designing city smell environments, which was “…contributing towards the wider research agenda regarding how people sensually experience urban environments. It is the first of its kind in examining the role of smell specifically in contemporary experiences and perceptions of English towns and cities, highlighting the perception of urban smellscapes as inter-related with place perception, and describing odour’s contribution towards overall sense of place.”
An urban planner by training and an academic, Henshaw wrote on the topic at her blog Smell and the City, which, along with her book left a wonderful trove of info on the topic. An interview in Wired UK “Odour map seeks to save endangered smells‘ hints at an oft-mentioned theme in any writing around the subject: that while we scrub the cities of the bad smells, we also lose the essence of what makes places unique and special.
As mentioned by Henshaw: “”The approach to town-centre management has always been about sterilisation,” she says. “We’ve become so unused to strong smells that we now have adverse reactions to them.” This disassociation is both the target as well as the opportunity to tap into unrealized sensory design opportunities, as we gain more understanding of the impacts. One such method as the ability to reroute ventilation systems “to the front of restaurants and entertainment venues — with the intention of attracting more customers,” which ostensibly captures the essence and vitality of a food stall in Barcelona, from her site.
There’s a mention as well of a Global Smell Map that seems to be no longer viable as it doesn’t have any info. A later article by Henshaw as well from 2014 ‘Don’t Turn Up Your Nose at the City in Summer” focuses the nose on New York, which for her was ‘The season of smell”, where smell becomes a factor in the original city grid layout to “maximize the benefits of westerly winds to dissipate the supposedly deadly miasmas thought to spread disease…” as well as industrial pasts, even long after the smoke stacks go cold, mentioning that “In London’s Olympic Village, for example, the main stadium was built on a former industrial zone — and when it rains, locals report detecting the smell of soap seeping from the site of an old factory.”
She mentions the sociology of smell as well, mentioning external issues like waste-treatment facilities and their smelly impacts often being located in poorer areas. “Smell also provides a sociological map of the city. Poorer people tend to have less control over their smell environments.” The experience of smell-walks and close observations of senses, provides a new way of seeing and understanding places, and although sometimes foul, Henshaw’s advice is sound:
“But don’t hold your nose. Teach yourself to parse the city’s odors and you will find a new dimension of urban experience opening up before you. Accept the olfactory.”
McLean and Henshaw, along with a cast of others also helped co-edit the recent literature on the subject in the 2018 book “Designing with Smell – Practices, Techniques and Challenges”, which offers “case studies from around the world, highlighting the current use of smell in different cutting-edge design and artistic practices…” [with] “…an emphasis on spatial design in numerous forms and interpretations – in the street, the studio, the theatre or exhibition space, as well as the representation of spatial relationships with smell.”
As mentioned, this detour into the realm of senses and smells may seem counter to the investigation of hidden hydrology, but these examples connect the hidden to the physical world through exploration, and also provide compelling ways of using these investigations of place while presenting graphic information that is compelling, interactive, and data-rich. Next we will dive into another sensory exploration, that of soundscapes.
HEADER: Smell Map by Kate McLean – via Medium