There are two things that Kumbharwada in Dharavi is well-known for: earthenware and smoke. The potter families in Kumbharwada inhabit the same area as their kilns and where there is fire there is smoke. Over the last couple of decades, solutions to either rid the environment of its hazardous smoke or to re-locate the people away from the pollution have not been easy to implement. Electric kilns are expensive and so are chimneys, and you can’t move without your kiln. Livelihoods here are so dependent on the kilns that smoke is seen as less of a problem than loss of business. 

With these challenges in mind, urban gardeners Nicola Antaki and Adrienne Thadani brought their botanical expertise into the Kumbharwada environment. They figured that a number of locally available plants, such as the areca palm, the snake plant and the money plant, could purify their surroundings. These plants filter toxins such as benzene, formaldehyde, tricholoroethylene, xylene and toluene from the air, chemicals known to cause eye, nose and throat irritation, nausea and headaches in the short term and cancer in the long term. A person would need about four areca palms, four snake plants and two money plants to have fresh, clean indoor air. 

In Kumbharwada homes, however, space is a luxury - as it is in many other parts of Mumbai - and installing a garden may not be a top priority. The urban gardeners devised three kinds of gardens that would utilise minimum space and resources. The Living Screen and Air Cleaning Tiles make use of earthenware and ceramics to form vertical gardens. The Living Screen uses money plants as a living air filter and space divider. Air Cleaning Tiles are a plastic-free garden wall that maximise vertical wall space to provide an additional layer of insulation to keep buildings cool. The tiles are of glazed earthenware with a pocket for planting, with drip irrigation and a simple drainage system, and can be arranged in any design. Discussions with locals resulted in Fresh Air for One, an indoor garden designed to fit a small home. The first prototype, exhibited at the Alley Galli Biennale, uses a combination of ideas and concerns suggested by Kumbharwada people: shelves, mobile bases so that pots can be moved around, and hanging pots.

In an on-going participatory process, Thadani and Antaki are seeking answers to two important questions from Kumbharwada residents. Is air pollution a problem where you live? Would you keep air cleaning plants in your home? 

urban gardeners

Nicola Antaki, Adrienne Thadani, Ganesh Lokare


Ashwin Solanki and Abbas Galwani

Growing Fresh Air was a UCL Grand Challenges research project in the field of Human Wellbeing. It was based on Kamal Meattle's research, along with learnings from NASA, TERI and IIT, which show that three common houseplants could produce enough fresh air for one person to be healthy.