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. 

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.