Lessons from Bucharest as an unfinished reservoir becomes a nature park

Văcărești Reservoir, an unfinished project from Romania's Communist era, is now one of Europe's largest urban nature areas. (Helmut Ignat/Asociatia Parcul Natural Văcărești)

BUCHAREST, Romania — Usually, not much good comes from a giant unfinished infrastructure project left to rot in the middle of a city. But Bucharest is turning an epic washout into something special.

For decades, the massive Văcărești reservoir has sat empty just a few kilometers from the city’s main square. The former dictator Nicolae Ceauseșcu wanted the artificial lake to supply water for Bucharest and to prevent floods — and bulldozed a residential area to build it. The partially completed project was abandoned in 1989 when the Communist regime fell. It’s laid fallow ever since.

Nature has taken over. The unfinished reservoir partially filled in with water and sprouted with vegetation. It’s gradually transformed into an urban wetland. With hundreds of species of plants, birds, small mammals, fish and amphibians, some call it “Bucharest’s Delta.”

And now, thanks to a successful campaign by local activists, it’s officially become Văcărești Park — one of Europe’s largest protected nature areas in an urban setting.

In May, the Romanian government officially recognized this area as a nature park. That designation can unlock new funding from the European Union. It also marked a turning point in the debate over what to do with the 183-hectare (452-acre) plot. Until the economic crash eight years ago, the area seemed destined to become a casino, hotel and golf course.

There’s still a long way to go to turn Văcărești Park into a park for people. The area remains closed to the public and walled off from the residential buildings and factories that surround it. But the story of Văcărești offers some interesting lessons for other cities wrestling with large plots of land nobody knows what to do with, or cities that are putting renewed emphasis on the value of parks, open space and biodiversity in urban settings.

Lesson 1: Make the land feel special

Photos from inside the reservoir showed a natural side of Bucharest that most residents had never seen before. (Helmut Ignat/Asociatia Parcul Natural Văcărești)

The campaign to turn Văcărești into a park began with pictures. Local photographer Helmut Ignat took his camera into the urban wilds and shot images of the lush greenery, splashing waterfowl and apartment towers reflecting off the blue lake. He published them in the May 2012 issue of the Romanian edition of National Geographic. The photos showed a natural side of Bucharest that most residents had never seen before — and it was right in their backyard.

[Read: How Singapore makes biodiversity an everyday part of urban life]

Ignat joined with local activists, NGOs and others to form a group committed to the cause of turning the reservoir into a park. Known as the Asociatia Parcul Natural Văcărești, or Nature Park Association, the group developed a powerful communication strategy. They used social media and traditional media,  and leaned heavily on Ignat’s photographs to show citizens and public officials there was something special behind the reservoir’s concrete walls.

To give people a first-hand view over those walls, the group set up an observation area on the 17th floor of a nearby high rise. Thousands of visitors have come to the observatory to learn about the park and spot birds with binoculars.

“The main reason of our success,” Ignat says, “is that we created the idea of a ‘park’ before it officially existed.”

Lesson 2: Use data

The park is home to hundreds of species. (Helmut Ignat/Asociatia Parcul Natural Văcărești)

The idea of creating an enormous nature park in the middle of a city was a totally new thing, both for Bucharest and Romania. So the Văcărești campaign needed more than pictures. It also needed data on how and why to do this.

Activists gathered case studies of successful urban nature reserves, such as the London Wetland Centre, Lisbon’s Monsanto Forest Park and the Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve in Buenos Aires. The examples showed that these nature parks improve quality of life for residents and bring economic benefits in the form of tourism. They also demonstrated different governance models for setting up the parks and maintaining them.

The campaign gathered other data points as well: the number of species living in Văcărești, the park’s climate benefits in terms of CO2 reduction, and its potential to vastly increase Bucharest’s number of square meters of parkland per person. It took more than a year to complete all the background studies needed to convince the Romanian Academy of Sciences of the biodiversity value of the area — a necessary step under national law. All of this information also gave local officials a ready way to plug the park into long-range city plans such as the Bucharest 2035 Strategy.

Lesson 3: Engage the residents

Residents from areas surrounding the park are beginning to see its value as a nature reserve. (Helmut Ignat/Asociatia Parcul Natural Văcărești)

The impetus to turn Văcărești into a park came from activists who live elsewhere in the city. But residents of the surrounding area are coming around to it as well. A growing number have begun collaborating on a voluntary basis with the Nature Park Association in safeguarding the area. For example, during dry summer months when fires sometimes break out in the park, local residents play a key role in alerting the association.

That growing cooperation with the residents is an important development. In fact, it’s mandatory. Under Romanian law, a consultative council of residents and NGOs are to advise local authorities on how the park should evolve. Operational management of the park will be outsourced to community groups; the Nature Park Association is one of the main candidates.

[Read: What’s a ‘biophilic’ city? Let Timothy Beatley explain]

As part of its public-engagement strategy, the association has begun offering guided tours of the park. School groups from around Bucharest also visit for two-hour lessons with biologists. Dan Bărbulescu, the association’s director, says part of the goal is to encourage city dwellers to discover a new relationship with nature in the urban space.

“One of our objectives in the future is to open this park to the city, in order to make it more accessible,” Bărbulescu says. “It was a huge ‘no man’s land’ but now this place needs to be open as much as possible to the people.”

Lesson 4: Build momentum for more

The nature-park designation has Bucharest thinking about creating more protected urban reserves. (Helmut Ignat/Asociatia Parcul Natural Văcărești)

Among Europe’s 30 capital cities, Bucharest ranks near the bottom in a major survey of environmental policies. The city desperately needs to increase its amount of green space per citizen, and in general to foster a greater sense of environmental stewardship among citizens and city leaders alike.

“Cars are still very popular in Bucharest,” says Florin Stoican, president of an NGO called Kogayon, which manages some of Romania’s protected natural areas. “Politicians don’t want to choose between cars and trees, because people would prefer cars.”

However, the emerging success with Văcărești may be changing things. There’s now talk of protecting another green area of the city, the urban forest of Baneasa. Located near Bucharest’s international airport, it’s an area teeming with wildlife that has also become popular with urban cyclists. Local officials are considering transforming the area into Bucharest’s second nature park, following the Văcărești model of collaborating with local stakeholders in its management.

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Simone is a Rome-based journalist who covers innovation, sustainability and urban issues.   Full bio

LEARNING FROM BUCHAREST

  • Activists successfully lobbied to turn an unfinished reservoir from the Communist era into an officially protected nature reserve.
  • Photos from inside the walled-off reservoir captured residents’ imaginations by showing a natural side of the city most had never seen before.
  • An observation area and tours of the park for students are part of an effort to inspire city dwellers to discover a new relationship with nature.

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