The hole in Bucharest that’s become a nature reserve

The reserve now. Image: Helmut Ignat.

A failure in Romania’s brutalist architectural planning of the 1980s has transformed a massive hole in Bucharest into an anarchic expanse of natural and urban coexistence.

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 verdant terrain where lakes over four metres deep are packed with thick 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.

Barbulescu is executive director of the Save the Danube & Delta Association. But he also promotes this wetland reserve, where over 86 species of birds thrive, alongside newts, foxes, water snakes and stray dogs. 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 over 20 years of neglect; Barbulescu calls it “a school of life in the open air.”

This is the richest and wildest park in Bucharest – but this wasn’t supposed to happen at all. Under communism, the plan was for Vacaresti to be filled with water; in the idiotic capitalist years of the mid-2000s, it was meant to be a concert venue. Both projects collapsed – and the zone became a metaphor for the failures of Romania’s development under both communist and free market principles.

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

“The muddy hole attracted peculiar vegetation, then fish and amphibians

With over two million inhabitants, Bucharest is one of the largest cities in eastern Europe. And, more than any other ex-Communist city, the Romanian capital suffered from the grand redevelopment projects of a mad dictator, who sought to build a workers’ paradise based on a clueless interpretation of modernist principles.

From the 1970s, Niculae Ceausescu demolished the Vacaresti district’s winding 19th and early 20th century streets of low-level housing and kitchen gardens. (A few traces remain: a cobbled path from an old house nudging through the vegetation, say.) 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. One was completed; Vacaresti lay empty.

In the early 2000s, the space was again earmarked for development: this time it was to include a hippodrome, casinos, hotel and a golf course. But in 2008, Bucharest was hit by a double whammy. Its post-EU accession real estate bubble burst at the same time as the global financial crisis pulverised the city’s private development. Investors pulled out of the Vascaresti 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 elsewhere: in Nantes, Copenhagen, Buenos Aires, Shanghai. 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 before that can happen, the space needs the local government to grant the zone protected area status.

And, 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 claims 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.

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

Gice has lived here for 16 years, and 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. He doesn’t 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. Now it seems the zone is a place for cruising, too. Gica says he sees about 15 people per day having assignations in woods.

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, so I assume he’s there for another reason, but I don’t dare ask him if he’s there for sex.

I ask 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 escarpment, 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 edge of the dam 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 if the lake offers some drifters a sustainable business, others’ behaviour is more destructive. Some nearby residents cut down the trees for lumber and firewood, and parts of the zone are a dumping ground for fly-tipping. Meanwhile fisherman sit back and drink cheap vodka and plastic bottles of beer, before chucking the empties into the ponds while they fish.

Nevertheless Vacaresti Lake has moved on from being just another urban wetland reserve. In Bucharest, state intervention has plagued the livelihoods of citizens for decades. The lake shows that, when the government pulls back, the people can still  create order, business and pleasure out of anarchy.

All images: Copyright Helmut Ignat. 

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.