Planting hope — an artist’s upside-down solution to Karachi’s air pollution

In the heart of Karachi's urban sprawl, where clean air is a luxury, one artist's upside-down gardens defy air pollution, offering a breath of hope.
Published May 16, 2024

Welcome to Karachi, Pakistan’s bustling economic hub, where not only has the struggle for necessities like public transport and clean water become a daily battle, but the rising air pollution has made breathing difficult too. Amid these difficulties, one artist has proposed an innovative solution to combat the city’s increasingly unbreathable air: planting air purifiers in homes.

Fayaz Baloch, who hails from Kalat, Balochistan, fondly recalled his upbringing in a house adorned with a vast garden, where discussions about plants were commonplace during evening teas.

Reflecting on his journey, Baloch shared: “I was a rebellious teenager until an almond tree taught me patience.” Breaking into a smile, he reminisced, “It just stood there, enduring the changing seasons, adapting to survive storms, heatwaves, and harsh winters. Sometimes it looked mesmerising, other times bare.”

Baloch’s perspective further solidified when he moved to Karachi for the Taaza Tareen Residency offered by Vasl Artists’ Association, delving into the city’s historic neighbourhoods with a mission to address the challenges confronting local communities. During his exploration, one observation stood out — the glaring absence of green spaces and plants.

Moreover, the poor air quality that pervaded the city’s atmosphere became increasingly evident to Baloch with each passing day.

Based on the Air Quality Index (AQI), Karachi’s current air quality registers at 98 US AQI. The AQI serves as a universal metric endorsed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), allowing for comparisons of air pollution levels across different cities worldwide. At this level, the air quality in Karachi is classified as moderate, indicating that it is generally acceptable. However, individuals with respiratory conditions may experience some difficulty breathing particularly during the winter months when the quality becomes much worse.

Karachi’s green revolution

To tackle these challenges, the solution seemed straightforward — Karachi’s grey cemented spaces needed a splash of greenery. With this idea in mind, Baloch set out to explore the city.

During one of his expeditions to Jodia Bazaar, a bustling local market, the artist stumbled upon a unique sight. In a small shop tucked away in the chaos, the owner had ingeniously suspended his collection of kettles from the ceiling. “It intrigued me how he utilised every inch of his space,” the artist remarked, captivated by the creative use of such a seemingly mundane setting.

Limited spaces II, Jodia Bazaar, Karachi — Fayaz Baloch
Limited spaces II, Jodia Bazaar, Karachi — Fayaz Baloch

Another thing that caught his attention was the abundance of towering skyscrapers, each seemingly striving to outdo the other in height. Among them, the structures under construction stood out with their wooden scaffolding giving an illusion of the building, set to grace the skyline in a matter of months.

“In Karachi, land is a precious commodity, nobody wants to give up even 25 square feet space for a neem tree which grows well in Karachi’s environment without any need of special care because why would they loose out on millions of rupees,” Baloch noted.

In recent years, Karachi, often dubbed the “city of lights,” has undergone a dramatic transformation, marked by rapid progress. However, alongside this urban evolution, there’s a decline in the city’s natural spaces. “What Karachiites fail to realise is that humans can’t live without nature,” he lamented.

Limited spaces II, Saddar, Karachi — Fayaz Baloch
Limited spaces II, Saddar, Karachi — Fayaz Baloch

A conversation and a solution

“With this vision, I wanted a common person to talk about the environment and understand the problem,” said Baloch. To ensure relatability, he decided to incorporate scaffolding structures —a familiar sight for every resident of the city.

However, merging these structures with plants posed a challenge.

The search led him to Hydroponics Pakistan Company, which introduced him to aeroponics — the practice of growing plants in air or misty environments without the use of soil.

“The NASA-approved plants require no soil, which helps in avoiding the health risks that come with the use of insects and pesticides,” explained Khalid Fazli, head of research and development, at Pakistan Hydroponics.

He elaborated that these plants are primarily designed for indoor spaces. “They’re like air purifiers, but even more effective as they not only cleanse the air but also replenish it with oxygen.”

“These plants typically grow upwards, but for the artist’s vision, we displayed them upside down,” Fazli noted.

Anybody can plant them in their homes; the only worry is that they require a nutrient-enriched solution and a small water pumping motor that can regularly supply the plant with the mist it needs.

“When you water the soil once, it retains the water and provides it to the plant as needed; as there is no soil here, the water needs to be provided to it in regular intervals,” Fazli added.

“I suspended the plants upside down to capture the interest of ordinary individuals and spark conversations. It proved to be effective; as soon as people noticed the downward-facing leaves, they approached me to inquire about the unusual display and its significance,” said Baloch, recalling the two days his installation was displayed at the Aga Khan University Hospital.

Project Installation at Aga Khan University Hospital — Fayaz Baloch
Project Installation at Aga Khan University Hospital — Fayaz Baloch

“The climate is changing rapidly, the reality is that we can’t stop progression but what we can do is think innovatively — ‘Future Gardens: Utopian Solution for Uncertain Future’ was exactly about that,” Baloch emphasised.

However, innovation is not the solution to this problem.

“These plants are a step forward, but let’s not mistake them for a victory,” remarked environmentalist Tofiq Pasha Mooraj. “If we become content with these artificial substitutes that look like pictures on a wall, then we risk losing real trees, birds, and flowers.”

Mooraj stressed that the true solution lies in reclaiming green spaces and safeguarding the ones we have. “These plants are not trees yet; it will take time for them to reach that stage. In the meantime, we must shield ourselves from the imminent threat, such as the ongoing environmental degradation, by taking small steps like reducing plastic usage.”

As Karachi navigates its path toward a sustainable future, Baloch’s vision serves as a reminder that the solutions to our most pressing challenges often lie at the intersection of creativity, perseverance, and a deep reverence for the natural world. His story is a testament to the power of art to inspire change and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

Header image: Art installation by Fayaz Baloch — AKUH