Citizen-Led Bucharest Park Gets Official Stamp

Vacaresti Nature Park (Photo by Christine Ro)

The Bucharest site of the Vacaresti Nature Park is unusual. There’s an elevated circular walkway that takes about an hour to walk, which slopes down to an open area that is lush in parts and dry in others. This bit of wildness is a stark contrast to the Soviet-era housing blocks that surround it — a contrast that has given rise to the park’s nickname, “Delta between blocks.”

This recently formalized park in Romania’s capital has set several precedents. For one thing, Vacaresti Nature Park is the country’s first urban nature park. Although it’s walkable from the city center, and is surrounded by a highway and a mall, the site contains otters, foxes, shrews, weasels, and many species of birds and fish. The 455-acre park has increased Bucharest’s green space per inhabitant by 1 square meter.

The less immediately visible novelty is that this is Romania’s first nature park to be created by citizens rather than the government. This citizen-led process is unusual for Romania, where explosive incidents (most recently a nightclub fire) can topple prime ministers, but where long-term partnerships between the government and civil society are not the norm.

The natural wetland’s unusual trajectory traces recent historical developments in Romania. As in many other parts of Bucharest, this land was seized, and homes razed, under the Communist regime. It became a hydrological project that was abandoned with the upheaval of the 1989 revolution. The area was then leased to a property developer who did little with the site. Homeowners whose property had been confiscated before the revolution also voiced a claim to the land.

This legal limbo left the site looking like a wasteland. Some Bucharest residents used the Vacaresti pit as a landfill; others cut down its trees for firewood. A decade on from the revolution, the site was charred and unappealing.

The proposal to create a nature park developed out of visits starting in 2011 by Helmut Ignat, the managing director of a manufacturing company and a part-time photographer for National Geographic Romania. This idea led to the creation of the Vacaresti Nature Park Association and a (limited) partnership with the Romanian Environment Ministry.

It took four years of grappling with government policies and procedures to officially establish Vacaresti. This included long periods for research, for scientific approval by the Romanian Academy, for City Hall clearance, and finally — on May 11 of this year — the government’s official declaration of the Vacaresti Nature Park as a protected area.

These four years were busy ones for the Vacaresti Nature Park Association, which relied heavily on mobilizing media and public support for the campaign. In fact, Ignat says, “This was our main strategy: to be as famous as possible.” To generate a steady stream of pressure, the association aimed to solidify the idea of the park in the public consciousness; social media and the press were crucial to this. Ignat notes, “Our main achievement of the park was creating the park before it even existed.”

The association sees the park as being a form of restitution for the natural heritage Bucharest has lost in the turbulent recent decades. According to Florin Stoica, the head of the environmental NGO Kogayon and one of the four core association members, “We started this project as a gift to local communities.” He recognizes that this relationship extends in both directions, as “We are an NGO, but without public support it’s impossible.”

Even with the official designation of the protected area, the association is still hard at work. Under discussion now is the administrative structure for managing the park going forward. The association wants to oversee the park itself, to ensure that it can achieve its vision of turning Văcăreşti into an educational, scientific, recreational and tourism destination.

In terms of the balance between recreation and conservation, the park is currently skewing toward the latter. On a recent weekday afternoon, there were fewer than 20 visitors. A strolling couple, when asked where everyone was, shrugged, “A reserve’s a reserve.” The quietness is at least partly by design: There’s a lack of signage for the park, and only a few places for people to enter and exit. Eventually, the association hopes to realize the site’s full potential; it’s not there yet.

There’s also a lingering contentious issue of relocation of people still living there: In the period between the confiscation of homes and the campaign for a nature park, several Roma families settled on the site. Some were in tents, and others in makeshift structures.

Some members of the association refer to these settlers as “criminals,” which is technically correct given that the area’s protected status bars fishing and tree cutting. Yet it’s hardly helpful for relations between urban conservationists and this disadvantaged ethnic group.

Certain Roma representatives agree with the association that the one family still living in the park should be moved to social housing and offered work as rangers within the park that they now know so well. (This would complement the compensation granted to previous owners of homes on the site.)

These different interests mirror some of Bucharest’s social and political relations. And what happens to this park may be an indication of the type of city Bucharest wants to become.

Christine Ro writes about social justice and edits work on cities.

Tags: parkspublic space