Can this mild-mannered maths researcher save Bucharest?

A profile of Bucharest Mayoral candidate Nicusor Dan, published in CityMetric, part of the New Statesman group


Standing behind 45 year-old doctor in maths Nicusor Dan is a wire shelf piled with hundreds of loose leaved files and cardboard folders.

These are cases Dan and his team from NGO Save Bucharest! have brought against the mayor, the council, investors and local representatives in Romania’s capital of two million people.

Over 300 dossiers challenge unauthorised buildings, dodgy planning permission and the demolition of antique buildings.

Dan has spent a decade as the nemesis of Bucharest City Hall, using the law to expose sleazy local politics.

For much of this time, the authorities squeezed bribes from the population for permits to build whatever they wanted, ushering in a period of construction anarchy that deformed this urban centre.

“An anarchy which comes from corruption,” says Dan.

Citing the years 2007 and 2008, Dan says that 50 per cent of planning approvals were illegal.

Romania is now carrying out investigations to prove official bribery was endemic – and interviews from these probes reveal the cost of unrestricted development.

If an owner wanted planning permission to build another floor, this required a bribe of 10,000 to 30,000 Euro. To build on green space was around 10,000 Euro and a shopping centre 250,000 Euro.

Such greed saw the City Mayor Sorin Oprescu – a medical doctor and recipient of France’s prestigious Légion d’Honneur – face arrest for allegedly taking money from contractors who won public tenders.

Last September Romania’s fearless Anti-Corruption Department caught Oprescu picking up a 25,000 Euro cash bribe in the middle of the night.

There is a systemic problem with public contracts and Dan – a decorated maths genius – has been doing his figures.

About 15 per cent – 300 million Euro – of the City Hall and its six boroughs’ total 1.9 billion Euro budget is lost to corruption, mainly through backhanders in the public procurement process, he argues.

This level of corruption touches everyone in the city. When a fire in the city’s night club Colectiv killed over 45 people in November, it was revealed the location lacked any safety regulations.

Therefore many blamed the relationship of bribes between businesses and public authorities as an indirect cause of the incident.

But in local elections in June next year Dan aims to seize the office he has fought for years and has flipped his NGO into a party, The Save Bucharest Union, which will stand in the city’s six boroughs.

 Bucharest’s office block Cathedral Plaza overlooking St Joseph Catholic Cathedral faces demolition following controversial planning approval

Bucharest’s office block Cathedral Plaza overlooking St Joseph Catholic Cathedral faces demolition following controversial planning approval

“No map of city ownership”

Dan is dressed in a tight blue suit jacket and light blue shirt – his vest peeping out from an open collar. A full layer of stubble reveals he hasn’t shaved for at least one day. Currently, he works as a researcher in a state institute specialising in number theory and algebraic geometry, continuing the work of the PHD he completed in Paris.

His dishevelled appearance is combined with a scientific mind, constantly juggling the weight of his aims with the practicality of their execution.

Firstly, Dan wants to shine the glare of transparency on the City Hall’s activities.

“There is no land map of city ownership,” says Dan, “only a list of owners who pay taxes. There is no map of all the postal codes in Bucharest – only a map of the streets.”

This vague representation of the city and its ownership means it is hard to make public policy, to know where to build council houses or nursery schools or find spaces for cars.

Dan then pulls out a giant five-inch thick paper folder, tied up with string and slams it down on the table. Inside are thousands of loose photocopied pages.

“I would like to present to you the city budget,” says Dan.

Inside are numbers, tables, contracts and invoices.

“To find information is almost impossible unless you are the economic director of the mayor’s office,” he adds.

Dan wants all public contracts to be made visible online and for the public to click through all spending by local Government.

“Assassinated by traffic”

Congestion and pollution torment this dense city of high-rises, designed on a Communist model of public transportation. Capitalism has seen private car ownership explode, while local Government scrambles for ways to accomodate their use. For example, half of Bucharest’s ring-road only has one lane.

“The city is assassinated by traffic,” says Dan, who aims to expand this ring-road to ease jams in the centre.

Meanwhile public transport does not circulate efficiently. There are no maps or timetables on bus stops. The only indication that a bus stop exists is a rusty sign, often battered by the elements or invisible behind wires and tree branches. “We need predictable times for buses and bus lanes,” he says.

Then he intends to tackle the city’s most visible blight – thousands of cars parked on pavements. It is near impossible to push a pram or a wheelchair along Bucharest’s streets without hitting a vehicle, meaning half a walk to the shops can take place in the middle of the road. But this will not be the priority.

“If we try and take all the cars off the street first, there will be a revolt,” says Dan.

Many citizens drive between home, work and the shopping mall without interacting with the city – it is treated like an American suburb, rather than a dense European urban centre.

“Bucharest is a town of cars where people do not conceive of walking with pleasure,” he says.

This leads to a fragmentation of the city, and a good example of this is students. “Bucharest is a university town where you do not see students,” he adds.

There are 200,000 in study, but they tend to live and work on campus. “The city doesn’t profit from this,” says Dan.

And this is Dan’s big idea – reclaiming the capital as a regional hub for learning and enterprise.

 Public space = media space, Piata Unirii, central Bucharest

Public space = media space, Piata Unirii, central Bucharest

“Getting international”

At present the city’s central Dambovita river is clogged with advertisements hanging above and the homeless sleeping below bridges – an allegory for the wealth disparity of the city and the authority’s philosophy that public space means media space.

The big idea is developing wastelands and underused open space along an ‘axis of creativity’ that straddles the Dambovita, linking libraries, university campuses and lecture halls with businesses, including free offices for start-ups.

Nicusor Dan wants to throw this out to international urban planners and architects. Bucharest is one of the few European capitals which has huge opportunities for architects. Its vacant lots and lack of many listed buildings make the space a playground for an inventive design firm.

Former Mayor Oprescu killed a lot of dogs. Thousands of dogs. Tens of thousands possibly. But they keep coming

“Killing dogs: a question of a city’s reputation”

In the past, Bucharest has won an international reputation for its stray dogs. Numbering in the tens of thousands, these packs of mongrels were mainly bred in the semi-rural suburbs and wandered into the city to sniff out food from trash cans and soft-hearted citizens.

But the outgoing Mayor Sorin Oprescu almost solved this problem by rounding them up in heavily-guarded vehicles and transporting the canines to an industrial facility, where, after two weeks, they were massacred.

Nicusor Dan is against using a law which allows the murder of stray dogs 14 days after their capture.

“It is a humanitarian question and one of civilisation,” he says. “it’s also a question of the reputation of a city. We are in a global competition of cities – and we don’t want to be known as the city which kills dogs.”

The solution for him is shelters and a comprehensive program for adoption, which does not exist at present.

“No one ever went to the source of the problem of the dogs,” he adds.

This means a carrot-and-stick offer to residents, especially on the periphery of the city, to fine those who throw dogs on the streets and offer free sterilisation for their animals.

Potential earthquake: “More people will die”

A major threat to the city is an earthquake. Due to its location on an area of seismic activity, where quakes over 7 on the Richter Scale are predicted every 50 years or so, the city is not designed to have high buildings.

In 1977, 1,400 died when buildings collapsed in a massive earthquake – if another of this magnitude were to happen tomorrow, Dan predicts “more people will be dead”.

Many of those buildings constructed in the 1920s and 1930s are sensitive to tremors. These buildings, which Dan says were “on their knees” following the quake in 1977, remain in the same state today. 350 buildings are classified as high risk, of which only 26 have been renovated safely – over 1,000 further buildings are considered a potential threat. Dan wants to unlock Government funds to restore these buildings and compel owners to comply with restoration.

“Track record of winning”

But can one man change an endemically corrupt system? When pushed whether he believes the city’s apparatus would be too powerful for him to transform, Dan argues: “I blocked investments of tens of millions of Euro in trials. There were very powerful investors who wanted to build on parks and I stopped them.”

Dan already stood for mayor in 2012, winning 8.45 per cent of the vote and now he is declaring his candidacy early, appearing on television to try and set the agenda for how the next mayor should be judged by the electorate – pro-transparency and anti-corruption.

There are two major parties which dominate the political scene, the Social Democrats (PSD), who hold the Government, and the National Liberals (PNL), whose representative, Klaus Iohannis, is President.

Dan does not rule out an alliance with a political party, but probably not the PSD, which he calls a “profoundly corrupt” party.

“It would be ideal to win without allies,” he says, “but if to become mayor we need to make an alliance, we would make a rational decision.”

An alliance is possible, he says, if it means a more rapid route to creating a system of transparency. But would this not wreck his position as an anti-system candidate?

Dan pauses. He bites his lip slightly and, for a moment, it looks as though he is not going to answer the question.

Then I realise, this is a man who wants to be careful in what he says and the manner in which it can be interpreted, but knows that he is not able to lie.

“I did not become the mayor to put this on my CV,” he says. “I have spent ten years fighting for the city. Not for myself.”


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