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Sensing the City

  Published: 25 January 2021
  Theme: Planning
  Written by Joshua Sim

The gentle roar of the school bus, the smell of freshly brewed kopitiam coffee, and the tactile flooring of the bus stop—these are some familiar scenes of Singapore’s urban environment that we engage with using senses other than our eyes. Yet, urban planning has been dominated by the eye/sight, or ocularcentric—building solely for visual pleasure.  This myopia might be a factor that explains the persistent criticism of inauthentic urban experiences despite being highly liveable. A multi-sensory approach in urban planning, as well as new techniques to capture the different sensory maps that make Singapore truly unique, can improve the quality and experience of the city’s urban spaces.

A tourist viewing Singapore’s cityscape by binoculars from Mount Faber
A tourist viewing Singapore’s cityscape by binoculars from Mount Faber (Image: 123RF).

Monica Montserrat Degen, sociologist and author of Sensing Cities, argues that a sense of place comes from experiencing the architecture, streets, shops and social life that we encounter, making it a fluid, dynamic and reciprocal relationship. We fall in love with the city in an embodied, dynamic way. This isn’t a new idea, but one that is more than a century old. In the 1903 essay The Metropolis and Mental Life, Georg Simmel made the same observation that urbanites have feelings of nostalgia for the rural country due to a sense of alienation from the visual “intellectualistic character” of the metropolis. This results in a constant yearning for the slower, habitual, and smooth flowing sensory tendencies of the countryside. More recently, J. Douglas Porteous suggested urban dwellers are becoming increasingly alienated from the physical sensory experience.  Charles Foster also detected a flaw in the overdependence of humans on sight, namely their inability to relate to the entirety of their environment. The authors of “Sensory Design” (2014) also discuss challenging visual dominance in architectural design by giving equal weight to all five senses. 

Non-visual senses help shape the urban experience, explained Dr Kelvin Low, a sociologist from the National University of Singapore. “While urban dimensions of landscapes and the physical environment are often regarded as built structures that relate to functionality in modern life, cities are also sites of human experience that comprise social relationships, memories, emotions, and how they are negotiated on an everyday basis”, he explained.

Unlike sight, most elements evoking our non-visual senses are dynamic and fluid. The morning birdcall, for example, is a regular, but temporal feature of Singapore’s urban soundscape. The same would go for the smell of cooking wafting from kitchens in Housing & Development Board (HDB) blocks. How then can urban planners make sense of these constantly shifting sensory maps? One way would be to get an aggregate through large-scale data-mining. Goodcitylife.org tapped on social media data to map out the sensorial and emotional layers of cities, creating happiness, smell, and sound maps. Its “Chattymaps” are soundscapes derived from an urban sound dictionary cross-referenced with picture tags and observations in its captions. As for smells, designer and researcher Kate McLean has produced scentmaps for various cities. She gets members of the public to participate in “scent walks” and collects data on the smells detected and the associated impressions or experiences of participants. By grouping similarly-encountered smells and taking into account wind direction and intensity of the smell, she creates a map that shows how the smells of different neighbourhoods can be distinct or alike, and how these smells may evoke certain feelings by residents.

A scent map of Singapore
A scent map of Singapore, visualised by Kate McLean, covering Katong, Kampong Glam, Chinatown, Sentosa, East Coast Parkway, Gardens by the Bay, Little India, Orchard Road and Toa Payoh. The most commonly mentioned scent of each neighbourhood was recorded as an episodic scent (Image: Sensory Maps). 
(View high-res image)

While it does not fully capture the ebbs and flows of sounds and smells, these practices can provide a baseline for planners to observe people’s non-visual interactions with the urban fabric. Using ethnography, we can harness increasingly complex map layers to get thicker descriptions of the sensory landscapes of the city. This is useful for maintaining a sense of consistency of a place. Such information could benefit Singapore greatly. For example, in the redevelopment of HDB estates, research could be conducted to collate the sounds, smell, feel and other sensory maps of the place, which could be re-introduced in the same locale. This would capture the lived and embodied experiences of a place that evokes feelings of authenticity and history. In addition, it has added benefits for mental health. People living with dementia, for instance, would appreciate the familiarity as they age-in-place.

A multi-sensory framework proposed by Nicholas Muleya and Malene Campbell shows promise in enriching our current planning process and its considerations. Using surveys and interviews with residents of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Muleya and Campbell assessed their reactions to different aspects of the city, from the plants to water and rocks to where food is produced and prepared using a set of six senses—visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, olfactory, and vestibular-kinaesthetic (or in layman’s terms, having fun with the environment). They found that the objectively liveable amenities of parks and streets were deemed to be subjectively of low quality by residents. Adopting this framework would therefore allow urban design and implemented amenities to be more user-centric. While this model expands our understanding beyond that of sight, its approach is still a conservative one that largely stays within the Aristotelian conception of the five senses.

A complete reorientation towards a multi-sensory city will fundamentally challenge the way we think about design. According to Yrjo Sepanmaa, professor emeritus of comparative literature/environmental aesthetics at the University of Eastern Finland, a city where aesthetics will no longer be limited to sight requires a new urban fabric. Using the example of Venice, Sepanmaa explores planning for our sense of movement, where we would need to go beyond wayfinding in the city to think about providing transport modes that encourage exploration. This would mean planning for being “safely lost” in the spirit of adventure and discovery. Residents, therefore, no longer passively consume the city, but actively engage and interact with it. A re-thinking of current standards is also necessary. Silence, for instance, would no longer be privileged as the “best” neutral state. Instead, sound and hearing will be planned as part of the urban fabric.

Some cities have approached the turn to a multi-sensory city by taking things slow. The Cittaslow, or slow city movement, encourages wider sensory engagement with the city through an appreciation for local produce.  Established in 1999 by Carlo Petrini to resist the “fast” globalisation and homogenisation of food, Cittaslow’s promotion of local produce resulted in an education of the senses to better appreciate the environmental idiosyncrasies that give rise to local food. In Singapore, where food is part of the city’s cultural identity, Cittaslow-type programming could showcase the hidden connectivity of the city. Farm-to-table concepts have already taken root in Singapore’s culinary maps; the key task of the urban planner is to increase the footfall for table-to-farm. Beyond a place for growing food, rooftop farms could become multi-sensory experience sites to allow for a full-bodied experience of every meal.

Singapore’s food culture contributes greatly to the urban sensory experience and informs place attachment, place identity and the sense of place
Singapore’s food culture contributes greatly to the urban sensory experience and informs place attachment, place identity and the sense of place (Image: Nauris Pukis, Unsplash)

Beyond food, Cittaslow’s manifesto has grown to include environmental conservation, sustainable development, place-making, community building, walkability and alternative modes of transportation, and even happiness, among many other aims. Social anthropologist Sarah Pink presents the case that Cittaslow’s enables a greater sensory appreciation of the city. Skill building, for instance, allows knowledge transfers and systems of apprenticeship that educate residents to hone their senses to appreciate their environment. In Singapore, ensuring the survivability and sustainability of intangible crafts, such as making rattan products and traditional Chinese lanterns, can be a means to build community.

Increased attention to the sensory experience of our urban environment can also contribute to building identity, attachment and a sense of place. Dr Low recommended the practice of sensescape walkabouts, particularly in Singapore’s ethnic enclaves and heritage trails, as a method for research and to better appreciate the different dimensions that contribute to making the city’s urban fabric unique. Enclaves provide a sensory way of identifying and appraising foreign bodies in the city and demonstrate how urban spaces such as ethnic enclaves are experienced and deliberated through one’s sensory, embodied experiences, while heritage sites also serve as visual and experiential reminders of how Singapore society has progressed through the decades, Dr Low explained.

Initially shunned by many due to its unorthodox slowing down of economic development, Cittaslow’s principles are catching on in big cities, creating multi-sensory experiences.  In Barcelona, one initiative has been to utilise urban spaces, such as pedestrian bridges, as farming sites. Denver and New York began to see an uptake in micro-apartment complexes, which are located downtown, enabling residents to adopt walking and cycling as the main modes of transport to work. 

Global cities like Singapore would do well to create oases of slow living within their urban fabric. In Korea, a string of slow cities across the country have captured a range of rich heritage sites and natural environments.  For instance, Jeungdo island preserves a traditional salt farm, while Cheongsong County preserves its green pine trees. Singapore could incorporate oases of slow living through urban furniture around edible-fruit trees or vegetation that had historically been grown in the area to reinvigorate its public spaces. This “kampong-style” could become Singapore’s very own innovation in the Cittaslow vein.

A multisensory approach to the development of buildings and urban spaces is necessary to scaffold residents’ love for a city. A growing number of urban planners and architects recognise that many cities suffer from a persistent social, emotional, and happiness deficit. Residents often describe a sense of disconnect and dislocation, despite being in peak urban liveability. This gives rise to a series of contradictions, such as increasing isolation despite high urban density, feelings of material inadequacies despite increasing wealth, and the lack of meaningful experiences despite being in the urban epicentre of culture and heritage. This disjointedness between the façade of a beautiful cityscape and lived experiences requires many interventions to bridge. But starting with thinking about incorporating more of our senses into urban planning would be a vital first step. For instance, Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, one of the jewels of Singapore’ Active Beautiful and Clean waters programme, has incorporated many of these multisensory elements in its design. From streams that encourage fishing and exploration to slopes that easily become makeshift playgrounds, the park have become a cornerstone of community building and wellness.

The rejuvenated Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park provides many spaces for multi-sensory experiences
The rejuvenated Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park provides many spaces for multi-sensory experiences, contributed by the sounds of nature, smells of blooming flowers, and opportunity to feel the cool flowing water, etc. (Image: AtelierDreiseitl, Wikicommons)

Breaking the hegemony of the eye invites a democratisation of one’s senses in the experience of the urban environment. Perhaps one day, we will speak less often of a city’s beautiful skyline as its defining feature, and shift our focus instead to the intangible, ephemeral shape of urban life. Maybe urban planners can take a lesson from Chinese landscape paintings, where the artist’s desire is not just for its overall aesthetic, but for the viewer to participate in a deeply personal and embodied journey across its carefully constructed terrains.

 
About the Author: Joshua Sim was previously part of the Strategic Research department at URA.

 

Further Reading

  1. Low, Kelvin E.Y (2015), “The sensuous city: Sensory methodologies in urban ethnographic research”, Ethnography 16(3):295–312.
  2. Sepanmaa, Yrjo (2007) “Multi-sensoriness and the City”, The Aesthetics of Human Environments, A. Bearleant and A. Carlson (eds.) (Peterborough: Broadview Press).
  3. Pink, Sarah (2008) “Sense and Sustainability: The case of the slow city movement”, Local Environment 13(2): 95-106.
  4. Muleya, Nicholas and Campbell, Malene (2020) “A multisensory approach to measure public space quality in the city of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe”, Town and Regional Planning 76:56–71.
  5. Montserrat, Monica Degen (2008) Sensing Cities: Regenerating Public Life in Barcelona and Manchester. New York: Routledge.
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