A look at the upcoming forest trail at Mumbai’s Malabar Hill

Rahul Kadri of IMK Architects on why an upcoming elevated walkway in Mumbai is a step towards restoring India’s degrading urban forests

October 01, 2021 03:27 pm | Updated 03:32 pm IST

T hink of Mumbai and what comes to mind? Traffic, skyscrapers, local trains and perhaps the beaches. But its posh Malabar Hill locality will soon be home to an altogether more verdant experience: the Malabar Hill Forest Trail, an elevated walkway. An initiative by the Malabar Hill Citizens’ Forum and the Nepean Sea Road Citizens’ Forum, an approximately ₹10 crore project, is being designed by IMK Architects. “Over the past six decades, our firm has worked on projects across various typologies such as residential, commercial, healthcare, educational, self-redevelopment projects, urban planning, and townships. In terms of urban design, we have largely worked on projects that involve the improvisation of infrastructure like footpaths, parks, etc. The forest trail project is particularly different because it is a very simple intervention that connects citizens to 12 acres of forgotten forest land,” says Rahul Kadri, partner and principal architect at IMK Architects. At present, tenders are being invited and Kadri aims to complete the project in 9-12 months. Excerpts from an interview:

Why was it decided to create this elevated walkway at Malabar Hill?

The Malabar Hill Forest is a roughly 12-acre green pocket of land in the midst of Mumbai’s densely populated urban landscape. It is home to a diverse mix of flora and fauna — from trees like gulmohar, wild almond, copperpod, mango, coconut, raintree, jamun, and jackfruit, to several species of birds such as the rose-ringed parakeet, hornbill, coppersmith and brown-headed barbets, magpie-robin, golden oriole, and peafowl, as well as snakes such as the Indian cobra.

Always popular with joggers, athletes, nature-lovers, and leisure seekers from the affluent Malabar Hill neighbourhood, the forest today seems to be falling into disrepair and neglect. Structures spread through the forest, including a stairwell and a greenhouse, as well as older access steps, trails, fences and guardrails are worn down or broken; open drains lead into the forest and form cesspools, breeding mosquitoes; garbage and construction waste are routinely dumped along the trails; and the forest is coming under increasing threat of encroachment by slums. The hillock’s subsoil has also started to give way due to constant erosion, exacerbated by storm water runoff along the steep slopes due to the lack of drainage. Further, the area is increasingly becoming an avenue for antisocial activities such as illicit liquor brewing. The Malabar Hill Forest Trail, thus, arises from the urgent need to preserve and restore the forest’s rich ecosystem, while creating a new, sustainable interface between nature and the city.

Why do you think such projects are important for Indian cities?

The forest trail is an attempt to enable people to responsibly experience an old, urban forest. Such projects are crucial as our cities lack spaces where citizens can intimately interact and get acquainted with nature. The project is also a novel way to catalyse the preservation and restoration of often neglected and degrading urban forests that are increasingly prey to unchecked development.

The project’s conceptualisation has been in the works for a year. Please take us through its design journey.

Our vision for the forest trail is to protect this last 12-acre pocket of tropical forest in the middle of the city and restore its ecological balance by bringing back native plant species that have been lost over time while helping the forest thrive. The overarching idea of the elevated walkway is to get people to visit, understand and be a part of the ecosystem, while causing minimum disturbance.

We initially came up with three design options — one on-ground, one above-ground, and a third one that was a hybrid of both. But we realised that keeping it on-ground would lead to people encroaching into the forest, which could disturb the flora and fauna, so we finally decided on a completely elevated walkway.

The trail is set to be built without destroying a single tree. Do elaborate.

We have conceptualised a raised wooden walkway with a central spine of epoxy-coated, steel structural support to keep the intervention’s impact on the forest floor to a minimum. An extensive soil investigation will help determine the design of the foundation and these supports. Our design takes into consideration the width of the trail, its sectional design, lighting, and materials that blend in with the habitat. Lighting will be minimised to ensure that the forest is protected against light pollution. The design will also address important ecological and hydrological concerns — it will avoid blocking the flow of natural water, reduce interference with existing root systems, and prevent disturbance to the movement and habitats of wildlife. The walkway itself, and its railings, will be constructed in weathered wood to merge with the forest’s natural hues.

How do you plan to keep the walkway interactive and accessible for visitors?

The city has several skywalks, but there are no elevated leisure walkways. Surrounded by nature and the sounds of chirping birds, the trail will create a safe haven for pedestrians amidst the bustling city. The trail will be approximately 705m long with an average width of 1.5m, and it will be at a minimum height of 2m from the forest floor. The height will vary according to the slope of the ground, raised up to as much as 10m in places. The trail will be interspersed with viewing decks, benches, and glass-bottom look-out zones at points where the walkway becomes wider. For example, the trail will extend to 3.6m at points with viewing decks, and to 5.4m at the glass bottom look-out zone.

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