The smell of London, let's see: diesel, dust, photocopier ozone and fox shit over a base note of fatberg? Paris, meanwhile, might deliver drains, wine, steak and sweat, and Glasgow – well, you choose. The growing geographical art of “urban olfaction” is to be part of a talk tomorrow by Dr Alex Rhys-Taylor at the Fragrance Forum, an annual think-in for the fragrance industry. And Rhys-Taylor, a sociologist from the Centre for Urban and Community Research at Goldsmiths College, thinks smell is one of the hidden hands shaping cities, creating “olfactory signatures” that become key parts of urban identity. It's a theme he is developing in his forthcoming book, Food and Multiculture: A Sensory Ethnography of London.
“We're familiar with understanding cities through maps and skylines,” says Rhys-Taylor. “This is looking at the city in a different way.” Sure is, and, if you'll forgive the Daily Mail angle, smell can even affect your house price. As part of his olfactory investigations, Rhys-Taylor consulted an estate agent in Leyton, east London, who said that the right smell added “about £8,000 to a house-price of £400,000”. He doesn't mean the old tricks of baking bread and making coffee when a buyer turns up, more the smell of the neighbourhood itself.
This stuff matters and, of course, coffee is a big part of it. As Rhys-Taylor says, florists and coffee shops are the emporia that really raise your game – and asking price – and the presence of coffee roasteries do this on a macro, district-wide level. “It's really effective, which is why estate agents love coffee,” says Rhys-Taylor, who calls it “a colonisation of urban space by way of the flat white”. (In this, Rhys- Taylor draws from the work of US geographer Sharon Zukin, who described the resurgence of New York's Bryant Park area as “domestication by cappuccino”.) And of course, a florist – the other great boost to a bottom line – can also be a game-changing “sensory presence”.
So if you're house hunting, coffee and flowers mean you're quids in, while the wrong smell can make prices plummet. But what are the shops that will bring prices down? Chicken shops, inevitably, and to the tune of £175,000 leeched from Rhys-Taylor's notional £400,000 home. It's not just the smell but what comes with them, he says: a fear of anti-social behaviour and an impression of the air-borne fug of global fast food culture. Indeed, fried chicken shops are now considered such a negative presence that they're increasingly restricted by local authorities and cited pejoratively in the strategic planning documents and consultations of regeneration-hungry inner-city councils.
Of course, it's a no-brainer that a neighbouring shop that smells sweet is going to be more attractive than a kebab house, and the most ardent habitué of Chicken Cottage would scarcely choose to live next to one. But Rhys-Taylor's thesis runs deeper: he says the smell isn't just a harbinger of market forces, but also a proxy for moral values. A generation ago, he says, to bear the smell of chip fat was seen as shameful: a kind of urban toxin attached to the poor, with deep roots in “miasma theory” – the notion, common in medieval times, that bad smells bore illnesses.
Some cities have been given identity by their smells, for better or worse. Edinburgh – Auld Reekie – was a brewing city with malty top-notes on the breeze. Walsall enjoyed the earthy smell of leather, while London owed its name of the “Smoke” to its power stations and chimneys. And what distinguished all this industry was its situation to the east of each city. Since the classical era this has usually been the case, so that west-prevailing winds would keep one side fragrant and the other odiferous. This aspect of urban planning goes back at least to the tanneries and composts of ancient Rome, says Rhys-Taylor, and has persevered in the sense that east ends – in the Northern hemisphere at least – tend to be poorer.
These days, London's power stations are luxury homes and art galleries, and its East End has to some extent been gentrified. But living memory records the pungency of inner-city markets such as Covent Garden, Billingsgate and Spitalfields – as well as specific industrial landmarks such as Sarson's vinegar factory in Bermondsey. And as their threat recedes, smells now arouse curiosity and study.
A growing pursuit, urban olfaction is fun as well as revealing. A great advocate was the late planner and academic Dr Victoria Henshaw, author of Urban Smellscapes, who hoped via her wonderful-sounding “smell walks” to bring olfaction back onto the city design and management agenda. Her mantle has been taken up by others including the cartographer Kate McLean, currently occupied at the Royal College of Art with a PhD on “smell maps”. (New York has notes of garlic and spilt beer, while West Berlin smells of lime trees. The results can be seen on her site sensorymaps.com.) “The association of cities and their odours does seem to be gaining in interest,” she says – adding that last year, the Visit York tourist authority produced a scratch-and-sniff book highlighting odours around the city, including the smell of a ghost.
McLean is delighted by such progress as, in the past, the influence of smell has been considered debased and unworthy – a pass that has led to the “deodorisation” of our culture. She now urges us to go forth, use our noses and enjoy the smells of cities such as Paris, the capital of a rich, ripe, cheese-sniffing tradition. “The acceptance and enjoyment of smell does seem to increase as you travel south,” she says. “Think of the smells of Mediterranean and Arabic cities.” So what has McLean drawn from her sources about the smell of London? “Lots of animal and foliage smells,” she says, “and unexpected curiosities like croissants and Turkish supermarkets.” No fox shit or fatbergs at all.
The Ifra UK Fragrance Forum 2015 is being held on Thursday, ifrauk.org