There’s Now an Olfactory Map of Gowanus Smells

gowanus smell map
Gowanus Smell Map courtesy of Annie Barrett Studios

New York smells. There’s no way of avoiding this, but what if you could identify where those smells are the worst? And then at the very least know which places to avoid offending your olfactory senses?

Now, thanks to Annie Barrett Studio, there is now a map of Gowanus (sorry, no big scale map of the borough) that catalogs the positive and negative smells, everything from man-made sewage and garbage odor to organic smells like fresh air and flowers, in the neighborhood. The map was created for design contest Axis Civita by Gowanus by Design, which involved the studio sending two members of the research and design team to map and distinguish the scents of Gowanus. The researchers were out sniffing out odors and recording three consecutive mappings of the neighborhood at various times of day, over the course of three weeks.

“Our objective was to establish an olfactory snapshot of the neighborhood. We knew it could only be as rigorous as our subjective experiences allowed, and that it would reflect the conditions of the neighborhood at one specific point in time, July, 2015,” Founder abd architect Annie Barrett said. “With those things in mind, it was important that the map wasn’t simply one person’s fleeting impression of the neighborhood on one day, and we wanted to control for things like day-to-day modulations of wind and sun.”

The idea for the map, which got second place in the contest, stemmed from a grimy, but common backstory that Barrett experienced after adopting her dog a few years ago.

“When you’re walking a dog, you have an extremely heightened awareness of trash can locations. The fact that there are essentially no public trash cans in my neighborhood meant that people often don’t pick up after their dogs, which has both a visual and an olfactory impact on the experience of walking down the street. I had been thinking about that — and what seemed like the corollary large volumes of litter around trees and street drains in the neighborhood — for a while, and so when we decided to enter the competition, honestly my first thought was to map dog poop,” Barrett said. “I liked the idea of mapping something that on one hand is of absolutely no value and almost feels incidental, yet on the other is the perfect register of urban growth and change; dog poop and litter are a problem now because the neighborhood is no longer dedicated to industrial uses, and as a mixed-use area supports a pedestrian community that needs street corner trash cans. Ultimately this idea matured into two different maps–one of smells, and one of litter in general, inclusive of dog poop.”

gowanus_garbage_map [Converted]
Gowanus Litter Map courtesy of Annie Barrett Studios
At its core, the purpose of the maps were to draw attention to the “dramatic impact on the character” that elements like smell, culmination of poop, and the locations, or the lack thereof, of trash cans can have on a neighborhood’s image, like the negative imagery associated with Gowanus because of the toxic, raw sewage floating in its canal, in an attempt to evoke some positive change in the area that Barrett has called home for the last eight years.

“As an architect, I’m especially interested in how municipal networks of tangible things — from trash cans to playgrounds to libraries — define public space and affect how we understand ourselves and our city. It’s not only about visual impact — the trash cans are also of critical importance because street litter gathers around street drains and exacerbates the acute flooding issues in the neighborhood. We were excited about our  overall competition entry, which focused on re-imagining the 10 dead end streets that abut the canal. But we were so taken by the stark reality of trash can deficiencies that we’re working now on developing ideas for a new trash/recycling infrastructure for the neighborhood.”

The Gowanus Smell Map will be exhibited along with the other contest winners at Site:Brooklyn gallery until March 5.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here