The hole in Bucharest that’s become a nature reserve

A failure in Romania’s brutal architectural planning of the 1980s has transformed a massive hole in Bucharest into an anarchic expanse of natural and urban coexistence. A feature published in UK online magazine City Metric. Pictures copyright Helmut Ignat

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The communists wanted a reservoir. The capitalists wanted a casino. The city got something else entirely.

“No one made any intervention,” says eco-activist Dan Barbulescu, as he leads me through the paths of the abandoned reservoir. “We did not plant anything. Only the wind and birds have bought seeds to this place.”

Poplars and willows are scattered through this terrain, where lakes over four metres deep stretch out over acres of land, packed with bullrushes flickering in the wind.

A concrete escarpment shields the wildlife from twenty-story tower blocks that rim Vacaresti Lake – a lush enclave in the urban congestion of Bucharest.

Dan is executive director of the Save the Danube and Delta association – but also promotes this wetland reserve where over 86 species of birds thrive, including kingfishers, swans, songbirds, herons and gulls, alongside newts, foxes, water snakes and stray dogs.

Here natural springs emerge from beneath a strip of concrete, where families of otters have arrived, travelling through the sewer tunnels.

Nature has ravaged this empty space, neglected for 20 years, in what Barbulescu calls “a school of life in the open air.”

This is the richest and wildest park in Bucharest – but this wasn’t supposed to happen.

The plan was for Vacaresti to be filled with water under Communism and a hippodrome in the idiotic capitalist years of the mid-2000s.

Both state and private projects collapsed – and the zone became a metaphor for the failures of Romania’s development under Communist and free market principles.

Yet its teaming wildlife, lawless beauty and inhabitants of drifters, scrapping a living from harvesting the wild, lay the foundations for how this troubled country could prosper.

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With over two million inhabitants, Bucharest is one of the largest cities in eastern Europe.

More than any other ex-Communist city, the Romanian capital suffered from the grand redevelopment projects of a mad dictator seeking to build a workers’ paradise based on a clueless interpretation of modernist principles.

Since the 1970s, Communist leader Niculae Ceausescu demolished the Vacaresti district’s winding 19th and early twentieth century streets of low-level housing and kitchen gardens.

A few traces still exist of the old houses, such a cobbled path from an old house nudging through the vegetation. His plan was to create towering residential projects inspired by his visits to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.

To supply water for this high-density housing and to act as flood protection, he constructed two giant reservoirs at either end of the capital.

A lake in the west was completed, while in the south, Vacaresti lay empty. In the early 2000s, the space was earmarked for a multi-billion private development of a hippodrome, casinos, hotel and a golf course.

In 2008, Bucharest was hit by a double whammy – its post-EU accession real estate bubble snapped at the same time as the global financial crisis pulverised the city’s private development.

Investors dumped the ‘golf and hippodrome’ project.

Meanwhile the muddy hole attracted peculiar vegetation, then fish and amphibians and, once the trees and bushes had grown, migrating birds.

Similar wetlands exist in Nantes, Copenhagen, Buenos Aires, Shanghai and London’s east end – but Dan Barbulescu calls Vacaresti lake, with 190 hectares, “the largest urban humid natural reserve in Europe”.

Four dedicated organisations look after the lake and offer a viewing platform at a nearby tower block. Their ambition is to build wooden walkways through the zone, and an observation centre.

But neither City Hall, the Ministry of the Environment or private donors or charities has any cash for the place. European Union funds are the only option – but firstly the space needs the local Government to grant the zone protected area status.

Although the Romanian leadership seems open to the idea, it has been locked in bureaucracy for over a year.

Former owners of houses seized and bulldozed by the Communists are still soliciting the Government for rights to their properties. According to Cristian Nan, a representative of some ex-owners, they want to take back their land and lease it to the state.

The Ministry of the Environment told me it is still putting together all the paperwork, before it can create a Natural Park with protected status, but activists are exasperated by the delay.

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While the status of the wasteland remains in limbo, Vacaresti Lake thrives as an unofficial zone for leisure, business and housing.

Around three families of Bucharest’s citizens have made their home in the reserve.

Among them is 48-year old Gica, lying on a mattress outside his home-made shack, playing with his naked daughter. I ask him what his second name is. He offers two options. “You can either call me Gica ‘Pescarul’ (The Fisherman) or Gica ‘Lacului’ (of the Lake).”

Scarred across his body by a house-fire, he now squats with nine children next to a duck pond.

“I won’t move,” he says. “Why? I love it here. Fresh air. A large garden – a place for children to run free.”

A resident here for 16 years, he calls himself a ‘warden’ of the lake, which he treats as an extended garden. He shows me a picture on his phone with a cormorant on his shoulder. He loves the birds, but has a problem with the rats.

Meanwhile three pigs are wandering free around the reeds and the grass.

“Only one will be killed for Christmas,” he says.

He claims he only eats the fish – and will not touch the birds and wild ducks.

“How about the otters?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “I don’t eat the otters.”

Outdoor pursuits here also include sex. Playboy Romania has already filmed a nude photo-shoot on the land – and now it seems the zone is a place for cruising.

Gica says he sees about 15 people per day having assignations in woods, including men having sex with men.

As I walk through the streets, I see one guy in his early thirties, naked except for a baseball cap, sunglasses, shorts and a pair of trainers. His tanned skin is waxed clean and he smiles and says ‘Good day’ as he walks past. It’s clear he’s not a fisherman or a jogger. I assume he may be there for another reason and, although it may be a betrayal of my instinct to journalistic inquiry, I do not dare ask him:

“Are you here for sex?”

I put it to Gica whether the place has ever been a dumping ground for corpses – he claims that only once, a decade ago, was there a “burnt body in the woods”.

On the top of the dam a man with no front teeth is binding up willow branches. Thin and twisted, they can be stripped and used as ornamental decoration.

I ask whether he will sell them.

He mutters that he is not sure.

How much can he get for them – three Euro a bunch?

“It depends,” he replies, turning his head to the ground.

Along the concrete rim pass a horse and cart – its rickety trailer full of wild mint stripped from the zone.

On the far side of the escarpment, a mother grapples her five-year old daughter as they negotiate the steep concrete. They carry a plastic bag of food for the stray dogs.

People still crack open the concrete to mine for scrap metal to sell – one of the main sources of cash for the city’s massive underclass.

But the lake offers some drifters a sustainable business, other behaviour is destructive.

Some nearby residents cut down the trees for lumbar and firewood and parts of the zone are a dumping ground for fly-tipping, while fisherman come here, propping up their rods, sitting back and drinking cheap vodka and plastic two-litre bottles of beer “Noroc” (which means ‘Cheers’), before chucking the empty bottles in the ponds where they fish.

Nevertheless Vacaresti Lake has moved on from being just another urban wetland reserve. In a city where state intervention plagued the livelihoods of citizens for decades, it shows that when the Government pulls back from a space, it could become a vibrant example for how people and nature relate to a wasteland, using ingenuity to create order, business and pleasure out of anarchy.

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