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Representing sensory experience in urban design

Urban planners and designers focus on the visual and aural aspects of urban spaces. While this helps to create a beautiful experience, it should be stressed that that meaningful spatial quality, or atmosphere, is generated through multi-sensory spatial experiences. We need to take a more holistic approach to the role of senses to create urban spaces that are an experience for all the senses. 

Why does sensory experience matter in urban design?

The atmosphere of any space is influenced by a multitude of sensory factors. It is not only visual but haptic and audible as well. These factors, in turn, create an emotional impression that affects the mental image of the space within a person’s mind. This perception, which can be defined as the subjective experience, creates a cumulative impression of the city that goes beyond beautiful vistas and colors their memory with crucial experiential details.

Visual sensory modality is the prime focus in any space, followed by aural modality which is critiqued and understood but rarely designed or represented. The sense of movement, chemical sense of smell and taste, and thermal sense are some sensory modalities that are rarely considered in the urban design process. These modalities are not completely neglected by designers, but they aren’t usually sufficiently incorporated into the design process. 

How does sensory experience help humans?

Studies of human response to movement in nature and exposure to natural scents and sounds is directly associated with physiological restoration. Multisensory experiences of urban spaces can have a profound effect on the well-being of people – physical and mental. 

Apart from health benefits, integrating multisensory experiences in urban spaces gives urban planners and designers a unique opportunity to make the city or the region stand out, owing to their smell, sound, taste, rhythms, movements, and more. 

What multisensory experiences can be a part of urban design?

Viewscape – Since this is the easiest category to integrate into a design, it is also the most common priority. Visual connections grab attention and can convey a sense of time, weather, and a sense of scale. It focuses on elements such as pathways, nodes, landmarks, color, volume, size, diversity, and more. 

Smellscape – If you associate a restaurant with an unpleasant smell, you won’t return. Why? Because you have developed that perception in your mind and associate the bad smell with the brand. Similarly, the sense of smell can be used to create a positive impression of urban space. Pleasant smells can trigger powerful memories and can have a positive effect on the healing process and human immune function. 

Soundscape – According to research by Alvarsson et al. 2010, exposure to nature sounds, when compared to urban or office noise can accelerate physiological and psychological restoration up to 37% after a psychological stressor. Soundscapes focus on using natural calming sounds, sound signals, reverberation, and more. 

Touchscape – Material connection can be used to create a distinct sense of place. It includes elements in terms of dryness, coldness, roughness, hardness and can feel rich, warm, authentic, and even stimulating to touch. 

Tastescape – Tastescape is a tricky aspect to integrate into urban spaces as it includes elements of sweetness, bitterness, saltiness, sourness, and more. 

Multisensory experiences help people interact better with the space. A blend of sight, sound, texture, and others help us perceive the environment better and develop better connections with the space.