Sensory urbanism: Designing cities for our neglected senses
Friday, June 23, 2017
Urbanist circles are awash with new buzzwords — "everyday urbanism," "post-urbanism," "tactical urbanism," "urbanism without effort," and so on.
Here, I introduce an intriguing one that is only slowly gathering popularity. This is "sensory urbanism." But what exactly does it mean?
What is sensory urbanism?
Sensory urbanism is a reaction against ways of thinking about and designing cities that are overdependent on our sense of sight. By reviving an appreciation of the neglected senses, the movement calls for greater attention to not just how our cities look, but how they feel, smell and sound.
Think about the last time you saw a vintage photograph of your favorite city — it may give you a tangible idea of how the city looked, but cannot evoke the smell of the local bakery, the sound of the ubiquitous metro jingle as it pulls into the station, or the feel of the grass under your feet. These things sense experiences are deeply linked to our memories of place.
Ultimately, sensory urbanism is about looking more deeply at what makes up the texture of a city. This helps to understand why different cities might look increasingly similar, but feel different as we walk, cycle or drive through them.
Hearing the city
Other than sight, sound is the sense that has garnered most attention from urbanists. Soundscape curators have started to collect recordings that help us listen to our urban past, helping to understand how the identity of cities changes over time.
There is increasing attention — led by "acoustic ecologists" — to sounds and their relationship to life and society. This has led to debate over which sounds we should try to preserve and which 'unwanted' sounds we should try to limit. It is based on the understanding that each city has a unique 'acoustic profile'. The Soundscape of Istanbul project, for example, tries to capture daily urban life as a series of sonic landmarks (or “soundmarks”).
Often the changing soundscape of cities can be controversial — the opposition to the emergence of the Islamic call to prayer in the soundscape of traditionally Christian cities like Stockholm is a case in point.
Touching the city
Understand how cities feel is perhaps less obvious. However, although it often goes unnoticed, we can sense many things in a city through our skin. Even how we perceive the air against our skin is important for how we experience a city — the heat, the cold, the dust or the wind as you walked to school as a child, for example.
While we are discouraged from using our hands to explore a city, we feel a great deal through our feet — whether it is the uneven surface of pavements in rundown districts, the cobbles of medieval towns or the silky smooth surfaces of the financial district.
Smelling the city
Perhaps the most uncharted territory is how cities smell. Perhaps that is because it is presumed that cities smell bad. But newly launched "smelling tours" of Vienna aim to change that by helping people to experience the Austrian capital through our noses. Guests are encouraged to close their eyes, breathe and let the aroma of sausages, coffee, chocolate, beer and street markets bring the city to life.
A city's blind spot
Some researchers have tried to work out how to make us more attentive to our other neglected senses by looking at how blind people experience our cities. The congenitally blind have no visual reference system and can help to challenge the "hegemony of the eye" in our built environment.
Bringing cities to life
Sensory urbanism may be another buzzword. But it has a lot to offer about what makes a city feel the way it does, and which ingredients add up to formulate our intuitive reaction to place.
We live today in an era when the regeneration of many cities — with the seamless, smooth surfaces of the modern built environment — has raised concerns that our cities are losing their tactility, such as their rough textures and rich set of clashing visual, audio and olfactory cues.
Paying more attention to our wider sensory environment may help us think more broadly about what makes our favorite cities what they are.
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