Climbing up the steep steps of a concrete embankment a short walk from central Bucharest, the Romanian capital, it’s difficult to imagine the wild landscape on the other side. Yet, hidden behind the five-metre-high barrier is a strange quirk of history: a failed communist-era infrastructure project that was left abandoned and, through inaction, allowed to revert to nature over almost three decades.
Today, in what is effectively a vast urban bowl, overgrown paths wind through fields of tall grass, past ponds brimming with wildlife as birds circle overhead. Species such as marsh harriers, herons, egrets and pygmy cormorants are a regular sight for those who venture inside.
For decades, this area was considered largely off-limits, a wild wetland ringed by urban sprawl that was home to stray dogs and those who had nowhere else to live. Others would go there for illicit trysts and to take drugs, or simply to dump their rubbish.
However, following a long public campaign, led by a small NGO, in May 2016, the Romanian government granted the site protected status as a nature park. It was a dramatic turnaround for the area, which is now said to be the largest urban nature park in the European Union, home to almost 200 species of bird, numerous amphibians and even otters.
A communist legacy
Văcăreşti Nature Park, 183 hectares of wetland, five kilometres from the heart of a city of almost two million people, has an unusual history.
‘This place was a small and peaceful neighbourhood until the mid-1980s – small houses, orchards, gardens,’ says Dan Bărbulescu, the director of the Văcăreşti Natural Park Association, an NGO set up in 2012 to push for the area’s protection. ‘They demolished all the neighbourhood and in 1985, they started to build this reservoir in the southeastern part of Bucharest.’
The planned-for lake, which was to act as part of the city’s flood-defence system, was one of many grandiose projects instigated by communist dictator Nicolae Ceauseşcu, a man with an expansive Soviet-style vision for the city and little compunction about tearing down whole neighbourhoods.
Things weren’t to work out, however. ‘The revolution came in 1989 and this empty, unfinished lake remained deserted,’ says Bărbulescu. (Ceauseşcu and his wife, Elena, were executed by firing squad on Christmas Day, 1989, paving the way for elections and the return of democratic governance). ‘In around 20 years, an incredibly rich, biodiverse place was born here,’ adds Bărbulescu. ‘It’s a Chernobyl kind of place, having minimal human intervention.’
Flora and fauna
Văcăreşti Nature Park is home to an increasingly diverse range of flora and fauna. This includes more than 150 species of bird, 331 species of plant, 13 species of mammal and 12 species of mollusc, as well as five species of reptile, six amphibians, seven fishes and 111 species of insect. Visitors to the park can encounter exotic plant species such as Ailanthus altissima (otherwise known as the tree of heaven), green ash and Siberian elm, as well as white mulberry, walnut trees, dog rose, hawthorn and elderberry. Bird species include the mute swan, mallard, whiskered tern and ferruginous duck, alongside the pygmy cormorant, black-crowned night heron, great crested grebe and Eurasian coot.
Meanwhile the great crested newt, European tree frog and fire-bellied toad, all strictly protected in Romania, can also be found in the park, along with the sand lizard, European pond turtle and dice snake, which are also protected species.
Delta between the blocks
Walking through the park today it’s difficult to imagine the journey the area has taken, or some of the other fates that might have befallen it.
When the regime fell, the almost-completed project was left as a sad reminder of the excesses of the last years of Romania’s communist period. In the years that followed, there were various attempts to build on the site, among them controversial plans in the early 2000s to redevelop it as an entertainment complex, complete with a casino. These went nowhere and Văcăreşti continued to grow wilder.
Meanwhile, the five-metre-high embankment effectively hid the area from view, so few people realised that there was an increasingly wild wetland just over a ridge from one of the city’s major thoroughfares.
Everything changed in 2012, when National Geographic Romania published an article about Văcăreşti. The article, entitled ‘The Delta Between the Blocks’, effectively introduced the country to a site of natural abundance located within the capital.
‘All of the main television stations discovered the paradox that in the middle of the city there is a place with wild natural diversity,’ says Cristian Lascu, the editor-in-chief of National Geographic Romania at the time and co-author of the article. ‘National Geographic Romania didn’t have a huge audience, but the television stations did.’
Lascu, who would go on to co-found the Văcăreşti Natural Park Association, says he had initially heard about the large number of bird species at the site from a birdwatcher in 2011. ‘I intended to publish an article about the birds, but visiting the site, I realised that there was a more important article to write. I didn’t expect it to have such an echo. In 12 years of being editor-in-chief, maybe it was my most important achievement,’ he says. ‘The dream of any journalist is to see how his or her work can change things.’
After a long fight
Today, Văcăreşti is slowly becoming a destination in its own right. On a weekend in early summer, families and groups of friends wandered freely through the space, exploring the unexpected urban wilderness. Some climbed up into one of the four wooden birdwatching platforms dotted around the park, which offer a more expansive view over the verdant nature. The top of the embankment, which runs for roughly six kilometres, has become an informal jogging track, offering a fascinating contrast as you look from left to right.
Within the park itself lies a maze of dirt paths, some wide enough to allow cyclists and larger groups to explore, others narrow and overgrown, passing through meadows of wild grass before unexpectedly opening up beside one of the park’s many interconnected lakes. Trees, including poplar, elm and willow, offer small patches of shade for visitors.
Park authorities have spent the past few years turning Văcăreşti Nature Park into an accessible urban nature reserve, putting in place infrastructure such as the birdwatching platforms, a wetland boardwalk and educational signs, while also trying to keep the human touch to a minimum. Those in charge – which was initially the park association before it handed over responsibility to the state after a year or so – have strongly resisted anything more than the minor changes that make it easier and safer for those visiting.
‘There are people who contact us asking when we are going to arrange the park, tidy it up, telling us that we need concrete lanes, benches,’ says Bărbulescu, as we make our way through a sea of long grass. But that would go against the team’s goal – to allow nature to continue its steady march.
Văcăreşti isn’t the only area of Bucharest that was radically altered under communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. During the early 1980s, Ceauşescu began his comprehensive reimagining of the city centre, said to have been inspired by a visit to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, and the style of city planning he saw there, complete with vast boulevards and elaborate buildings. At the heart of this was the towering Palace of the People, which was set to become home to Ceauşescu and his party apparatus.
In order to build the new civic centre, an estimated 9,000 houses in central Bucharest were destroyed and more than 30,000 residents forced from their homes. Churches and other cultural and historical sites were also torn down, with little thought to heritage. After the 1989 revolution, the unfinished Palace of the People, still considered the second-largest administrative building in the world behind the Pentagon, would remain empty for years, until it was finally completed. It now houses the country’s parliament.
Green space required
Romania, which joined the EU in 2007, is still one of the poorest countries in the bloc and its capital bears the architectural scars of decades of communist rule, with much of the population living in communist-era apartment blocks. Green spaces are at a premium, which added impetus to the fight to make Văcăreşti a protected space.
Even so, it was a long process, with public campaigns running alongside hundreds of meetings with the Romanian Ministry of Environment. ‘The process took five years. Scientific files, debates, messages from the community, pictures published in the media,’ says Bărbulescu. ‘It emerged from the community. People came here and said, we want to have this place as a protected area, we need to have a place like this in Bucharest, which is a dense, polluted city.’
Bărbulescu’s NGO now conducts hundreds of tours for school groups each year, with the aim of introducing them to the park’s diverse flora and fauna, and helping them to see the value of such a space.
Despite all of this work, the park is still treated with caution by many, who continue to associate it with its previous, sordid reputation. Others, however, have been drawn to it precisely because of the marked contrast between then and now.
Radu Ciorniciuc, a Romanian journalist and filmmaker, spent four years following the lives of one Roma family who lived for more than two decades in improvised huts of cardboard and tarp within what is now the protected area. ‘I knew of this abandoned garbage dump a few hundred metres from the city centre,’ he says. ‘It was like a ghetto. Nobody would go there because it was dangerous. That made it even more interesting to me. How could a place like that become the biggest urban natural park in the European Union, for a city that doesn’t have many green spaces?’ His documentary, Acasă, My Home, has picked up numerous awards at film festivals around the world since premiering in early 2020.
Ciorniciuc says that despite the poverty and the conditions at the time, the people who once lived in the area felt protected from the unforgiving outside world. The family that he followed – which was made up of two parents, nine children and four grandchildren – has now moved out and into an apartment, but several family members remain closely associated with the park. They are now employed by the Văcăreşti Natural Park Association as rangers, helping to protect the space in which they once lived and to stop poaching and illegal logging.
The high embankment around Văcăreşti hides the untamed area from the outside world, but it also means that when you are inside the park, it’s easy to forget you’re not far from the centre of a large metropolis. Only a handful of grey, industrial factories and nearby apartment blocks are visible above the tall, concrete barrier, although these can prove invaluable as points of reference when you’re trying to navigate the winding paths within.
Natural springs have helped the park’s rich flora to flourish over time and more and more species of bird, amphibian and mammal are now being spotted, to the delight of conservationists. ‘When we started to build this project in 2012, there were 120 bird species and now we have 172 on our list,’ says Bărbulescu. ‘And it’s not only birds. We have eight species of mammal, including otters, which is an ecosystem indicator – if otters are living in a specific site, you know that the water is clean.’
There are also species of snake, as well as lizards, turtles and jackals, and Bărbulescu says they expect to see squirrels and other animals arriving over the next few years, although this will partly depend on efforts to connect the park with other green spaces in the city; its isolation has so far limited new species of terrestrial animal arriving in larger numbers.
Going forward, those involved in the efforts to protect Văcăreşti as a natural space are increasingly optimistic about the park’s future. ‘In the ’90s, this place was completely empty, just mud,’ Bărbulescu had told me earlier in the day as we stood on the balcony of his NGO’s office, which looks out over the vast green space. ‘During the 2000s, there were weeds and some willows. Five years ago, there were 60 to 70 per cent fewer trees than there are now. In the next five years, we will have a real urban forest,’ he adds with a smile. ‘There aren’t many of those.’