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. 

 
 
 
 

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.

Funding

The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.


Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  

Problems

A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.