Malabar Hill Forest Trail, Mumbai
January 21, 2022
Editor’s note: This story has been adjusted with follow-up information.
Mumbai—the second most populous city in the Republic of India that serves as a financial and commercial centre—is known for its urban spectacle of Gothic Revival architecture, dating back to the period of British rule in the 18th century. Its skyline features a range of contemporary skyscrapers that are home to financial institutions, technology companies and the Bollywood entertainment industry. In the densely developed metropolis, several of Mumbai’s last remaining natural ecosystems are located within an area called Malabar Hill.
Geographically, this hillock rises around 50 metres above sea level upon a forked peninsula, bordered by the shore of Back Bay on its east side and overlooking the expanse of Arabian Sea on its west side. In the early 1800s, this hill saw the construction of a governor’s bungalow complex, and has since grown to maintain its reputation as the most affluent neighbourhood in the city. At the heart of this area sits a 12-acre forest, hosting a mix of flora and fauna such as the distinctive flame-red blooms of the gulmohar tree (Delonix regia); jamun or Malabar plum trees; rain trees; and rare bird species, including rose-ringed parakeets and hornbills.
Trouble in paradise
Despite being a popular venue for joggers, athletes, nature lovers and leisure seekers from the neighbourhood, the forest seems to be falling into a state of disrepair and neglect. Temporary and permanent structures that have been previously built throughout the forest—including a stairwell, greenhouse, access steps and trails, fences and guardrails—were left worn down or broken; and garbage and construction waste were routinely dumped along the trails, which were also often used as latrines by passers-by. The forest itself is under increasing threat of encroachment by settlements along its eastern edge. Furthermore, the area was increasingly becoming a hotspot for antisocial activities such as illicit liquor brewing and consumption of drugs, leading to safety concerns.
Several design options to rejuvenate the forest with a trail that would not damage trees were presented by IMK Architects in a collective initiative, together with the Malabar Hill Citizens’ Forum and the Nepeansea Road Citizens’ Forum (NRCF), supported by the JSW Foundation. Two rounds of discussions were held with the input from Aaditya Thackeray, Minister of Tourism and Environment for the Government of Maharashtra. The construction is funded by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which is responsible for the city’s civic infrastructure. According to Rahul Kadri, Partner and Principal Architect of IMK Architects, who is also a council member of NRCF: “The project seeks to set a precedent for other Green tourist spots in the country by demonstrating how we can enjoy nature while causing minimum disturbance to the environment.”
Environmental repair and preservation
The subsoil of the hillock has started to give way due to constant soil erosion, which was exacerbated by vigorous storm water run-off along the steep slopes. The architects, along with the clients BMC and structural consultants, are currently formulating a solution to stabilise the hill. Stretches of rock that require netting are being marked out with minimum disturbance to the forest floor, which aims to prevent rock fall from the fractured faces.
The trail will span a total of 705 metres through the entire length of the forest, standing upon low-impact pile foundations and elevated on a series of cylindrical steel columns that soar 2–10 metres above ground in response to the terrain. It will be decked with weathered Sal wood and illuminated by warm-toned lighting fixtures within the balustrade, minimising light pollution inside the forest.
A utility block with toilets, ticketing booths and other public amenities will be provided at the start of the trail towards the west along Siri Road. Along the walk, information panels and small kiosks will provide essential information for visitors; garbage bins will be placed at regular intervals to help curb littering; while a network of CCTV cameras will ensure improved supervision of the precinct.
The elevated walkway helps to minimise hardscape construction and human activity on the forest floor, thus limiting interference to existing root systems in the soil while enabling an undisturbed flow of water along the hill slopes—this also means that visitors’ access to the forest will be regulated from the ground level.
Is ticketed eco-tourism the way to go?
The forest trail is an attempt to explore the potential of eco-tourism in the middle of Mumbai’s dense built environment: access to the forest will fenced on the ground level, with ingress/egress points provided at either end of the trail. Visitors who want to enter the forest trail will be charged with a nominal fee that will be used for the maintenance and upkeep of the trail. This also serves as a preventive measure to limit the number of people using the walkway at any given time, with the aim of preserving the forest’s environmental quality.
When one looks at other forest walkways in Asia that are open to the public—such as the eco-link in Banzhan Mountain, Zhuhai, China that provides pedestrians and cyclists with a safe and sustainable method to reach previously disconnected regions, or the 10-mile river corridor that serves as a recreation spot in the small city of Pujiang, which successfully transformed the people’s perception of the river as a ‘backyard dump’—questions naturally arose. Is limiting access against the source of the problems (i.e., humans) a thorough solution or is it a temporary one that simply moves the problem elsewhere? Or should we aim at root of the problem by engagement and inclusive communication to change people’s behaviour towards natural ecosystems such as the forest?
The perception that too many visitors will result in degradation is also something that warrants challenging: in the city of Bandung, many publicly accessible parks such as Taman Film (a park that makes use of space under a highway, which has drawn local tourists since 2014) and the elevated walkway within an urban forest in Babakan Siliwangi (opened in 2018), are proof of how improvement of built infrastructure indeed attracts many visitors to appreciate and take care of the facilities, out of a sense of belonging. Another case in the rapidly developing context of Jakarta, Indonesia is Tebet Eco Garden—a park revitalisation and river re-naturalisation project to help address flooding problems in the residential area, which also features an elevated bridge—is funded and will be maintained under a government-owned land use scheme within the municipal budget, with its thematic gardens and activity spots free to access for the public.
The trail is a good example of citizens’ initiative to take care of green infrastructure in the area, but considering other examples in the region, it would be best if access to the urban forest is completely free to the public with their upkeep being allocated through government funding mechanisms, although the implementation would depend on how parks are run in different countries.
With construction commencing in mid-2021 and targeted to wrap up soon, Malabar Forest Hill Trail is expected to be open to visitors in early 2022.
Malabar Hill Forest Trail
Malabar Hill, Mumbai, India
Total Trail Length
Rahul Kadri; Harish Vyas; Bhumika Ganjawala; Heena Sheikh; Pramod Shelar
Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation
JSW Foundation (Concept stage)