July 02, 2019

Senses and the city

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There once was a time I could see the beauty and chaos of the world, the vast golden cornfields and huge factory exhausts spewing dark clouds of smoke into the blue sky. This seems like ages ago, and the images I have of these things are almost faint in my memory.

It is a new day, yet a sad one. I have recently moved to the city; it is my second day here, and my body feels more sensitive than it has been in years. A distant car honking seems louder than usual, and I am overwhelmed by a concoction of scents: burnt tobacco, coffee, animal feces, perfume and sewage. My senses are heightened, yet my ability to navigate this unfamiliar place seems confounding. I am petrified nevertheless, I find myself roaming this jungle; experiencing it in a way only a few can. An elaborate play of some sort— I hear, smell and feel it all but I can only make up rough images of each scene in my head.

The following narrative describes the experiences of a blind man who has recently moved from his childhood home in the countryside to the city. Overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of this unfamiliar place and his inability to see, he begins to have a heightened sensory experience of his surroundings. Although this fictional account is specific to an individual with impaired vision, what it illustrates is that our perception of a particular place is developed through various interactions with palpable and impalpable qualities.

The five senses (vision, taste, touch, sound and smell) have an essential role in our experience of spaces and cities as a whole. As outlined in The Sensory Experience and Perception of Urban Spaces by Kalyani Wankhede and Amit Wahurwagh, professors at the Department of Architecture and Planning, Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology in Nagpur, India, ‘visual cues’ establish an image of space, ‘sound and touch’ help determine character and territory, ‘taste’ helps derive meaning and ‘smell’ aids in our recollection of memories of a space we’ve inhabited or have had contact with in the past. The character of urban areas is formed and experienced as a result of a unique composition of all five senses, resonating with our individual and collective memory. Urban life, comprising the commonplace rhythms, humdrum of activities, events and other unanticipated urban encounters, comes with a range of ‘multi-sensory bombardment’ emerging from human and non-human sources. Loud music, horns, voices, nature and vehicles are a few examples of the many elements that make up the sensuous character of cities. These combined experiences are an essential part of placemaking, which strengthens the relationship between man and the landscape, and the shape of the public realm.

Diane Ackerman defines the senses as elements that “define the edges of consciousness”. However, like Anatole Broyard of The New York Times suggests, “we haven't treated these voluptuous faculties of ours very well. It seems to be the essence of the modern attitude to distrust the natural, even as we proclaim it. Our senses are callused, covered with the scar tissue of our sophistication. There is a tendency now to condescend to nature.” Our love for the pristine has too often led to the destruction of essential aspects of the environment, including important memories. Processes of urban renewal and redevelopment have also changed the sensory qualities of places and consequently affect how particular cultural practices and expressions are included and excluded in urban life.

The reconstruction of a marginal area into a ‘cultural quarter’ often involves a dramatic transformation of the urban spatial structure and results in a deep reconfiguration of its experiential landscape as its urban fabric, and social uses are altered. These places, which once had a particular spatial character become whitewashed or demolished; new attractions and social groups enter some or most times, replacing old inhabitants. The inescapable outcome is that the life and sensory rhythms of such a place undergo change and are reorganized. A great case study is found in the neighbourhood of El Raval, Barcelona. Since the 1980s the neighbourhood has undergone urban renewal processes, which sought to control and erase elements that were considered harmful and unruly urban rhythms.

Urban spaces such as historic neighbourhoods, traditional markets, public and religious spaces are some of the areas within cities that have a unique identity and a lot of sensory potentials, which are a critical layer of community life. These sensory potentials have both palpable (natural and manmade features) and impalpable attributes such as festivals, art, and so on, which our sensory experiences of urban space depend on. They help shape the urban space identity and sense of place. Our understanding of urban spaces through the lenses of sensory experience is beneficial to urban design and could help to address the homogenization of contemporary urban spaces.