The Maharashtra Nature Park is an oasis of calm that few know about and even fewer visit.
Spread over 37 acres on the south bank of the Mithi river in the area around Dharavi, this urban forest was meant to be a spot educate city children — and adults — about nature. But things haven’t gone quite according to plan.
The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) along with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) began work to create the park in late 1970. It was a landmark achievement for the city, where what was once a dumping ground was painstakingly cleared with the help of volunteers, fresh soil spread across the area, and saplings planted. They expected over 3,00,000 visitors a year, but in the first year it was open to the public, 1994, there were only 5,000 visitors. While that number has grown since, it is still nowhere near what was originally imagined.
In 2015, the MMRDA, in association with the Observer Research Centre, instituted a global design challenge inviting ideas to improve the built architecture to complement the forest core of the park and to reimagine a new education centre. The plan also included a pedestrian and cyclist bridge over the Mithi river connecting the park’s northern edge of the park with the busy Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) on the other side.
Earlier this month, a winner for the competition was announced: Mumbai based firm Sameep Padora and Associates (sP+a) in association with Design Cell, Ratan J. Batliboi Consultants, Schlaich Bergman & Partner, and Ladybird Environment Consulting.
The MMRDA brief outlines many challenges.
Of the MNP’s 37 acres, 13 on the eastern side are currently unused and have become grounds for open defecation and soft encroachments. The forest-like zone of the park is only 17 acres, 45% of total area, and the education centre in this zone is visibly ageing. Perhaps the most important challenge is the severely polluted Mithi, a factor which puts off many potential visitors. The brief makes clear that the park’s makeover should blend in smoothly with a future vision of an unpolluted Mithi.
The brief also says the winning plan must aim to enlarge the 17-acre forest area and make sure that the park caters to a much larger number of visitors. It specifies nature-inspired designs for the proposed knowledge centre and other built infrastructure, and the necessity of factoring in the needs and aspiration of those living and working on both banks: the informal settlements of Dharavi and the centrally air-conditioned glass towers of BKC.
The bridge across the Mithi, part of the brief, links these two separate but interconnected worlds, both crucial to the city. Of the bridge itself, the brief says that creating a beautiful structure over one of the most polluted rivers in the country should be an indicator of intent to clean up and restore the river.
Now that their plan has been chosen, sP+a will have to wait for the MMRDA to sign the necessary contracts to begin development, but Sameep Padora spoke to The Hindu about some of its details.
The plan by sP+a — working with landscape architects, a structural engineering firm and environment consultants — recognises that the fortunes of the park are inextricably linked cleaning up the Mithi’s upstream reaches. Improving the quality of water that flows past the MNP is the only way to create a more conducive environment to engage with the river. “All along the river there are slum settlements that are going to be developed on the SRA model,” Mr. Padora says. “The plan envisions that these developments should keep the fate of the river bank in mind when the slums are taken down.”
For the river bank, then, the plan envisions a flood plain — undeveloped land for the river to overflow into — and cultivation of greenery along its edges that will lead in the long run to improving the quality of water. This would be more effective, Mr. Padora explains, than the current efforts at cleaning the river, which are basically limited to dredging out silt.
The second aspect of the plan, Mr. Padora says, is that the bridge should be seen as a destination rather than just a connect between the MNP and BKC. “In conversations with the people living on the Dharavi side especially, we found that what they wanted from the bridge was a view of BKC, which is aspirational, and the sea beyond it.” The pedestrian bridge in the plan curves away from an existing vehicular bridge, so that it escapes the noise, and has two broadened spaces where a range of activities could take place in order for people to connect again with water and opens spaces. It could become an important part, Mr. Padora says, of the Dharavi redevelopment plan. For this, of course, it is crucial that the quality of water improves.
The park’s near-anonymity is also something the plan aims to tackle. “It’s still a very nice park as it is,” Mr. Padora says, “but its edges are neglected. And not many people know when they pass through the road on the Sion side; you don’t get a sense of what lies beyond the road, that there is a huge park that is right there.” To target passers-by, there will be improved branding on the Sion side, with elevated structures that allow people to get a peek into the park. The bridge will also help, as people could then park the cars near it on the BKC side and walk across into the park.