Ugly billboards: Can't live with them, can't live without them

Experts lament the existence of billboards that have come to define Karachi's skyline

Ferya Ilyas November 29, 2015

KARACHI: Driving through the chaos that Karachi's roads are - dodging unruly motorcyclists, unaware pedestrians and slow-moving donkey carts - the last distraction a driver needs is a life-sized chocolate bar hanging from the sky above. "I already have to keep an eye on five to six obstacles on the road and the last thing I want to look at is a billboard," says architect Zain Mustafa as he moderates a session about the impact of economic progress on environment on the second day of School of Tomorrow conference.

The session focused on billboards in Karachi and how the city has become immune to them, with the moderator and panelists Marvi Mazhar and Laila Kasuri trying to make sense of the visual pollution that has come to define the city's skyline.

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While many agree the thousands of sign boards that dot Karachi's skyline are visually unappealing, what bothers architect Mazhar is that no one objects to them. "In Islamabad, there was a huge uproar against putting up a single billboard; the authorities gave in and the board was taken down," she shares, asking why this never happens in Karachi.

Mustafa believes the difference in reaction to billboards in the two cities has to do with the difference in the level of economic activities that takes place in Karachi and Islamabad. "In Islamabad, it was just one billboard, in Karachi, you don't even know where to begin," Mustafa states, mentioning how Shahrae Faisal alone hosts hundreds of billboards.

Kasuri, a water engineer working with The World Bank, argued that people do not object to ugly billboards because most of them have no idea what a good city looks like. "In Pakistan, people either live in poorly-planned cities or travel to the rustic northern areas," she says, explaining that people need to know of other options to do a comparison.

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The World Bank official believes it all comes down to teaching the younger generation about cities and their rights as a citizen.

Looking for solutions to end the ugliness that hangs above the heads of the people of Karachi, Mazhar mentions São Paulo and Chennai as examples of cities which have imposed a complete ban on billboards. "Chennai is a city from our region and its progress must be looked into," Mazhar stresses, with Kasuri adding that Pakistan should learn from these cities and find out how they implemented the ban.

Drawing similarities between Karachi and São Paulo, Mustafa says the two cities have similar dynamics and if Karachi wants to move away from outdoor advertising, it must learn from the Brazilian city.

However, Mazhar says one needs to consider the amount of income generated from these billboards when talking about taking them down. "What will be our response when the local government throws numbers at us?" she asks, to which Kasuri replies there are many more avenues to advertise today and it is about time people start using those options.

In agreement, Mazhar says just like much of the print turned digital media, advertisements should also move to that medium.


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