The abandoned Soviet project which turned into a huge natural reserve in the middle of Bucharest
Who visits Bucharest for some days has a lot to do. The city has an active cultural life, a hyped evening life, good bookshops, historic landmarks and a vivid old town. However, my short three-day-visit in September 2018 revealed me the unexpected: The Vacaresti Natural Park (Parcul Natural Văcărești), one of the pearls in urban Europe, currently the biggest urban protected area of the continent. The history of this green oasis until it reached its protection status of today reserves some interesting peculiarities, which we can explore here together.
The 180 hectares’ field lies very centrally in the city, between important highways and primary streets. In addition, it makes border to the beltway, which delimits the most central area of the city, and can also be easily reached by the underground system in its southwestern corner. Interestingly the Park is also very close to one of the biggest and most visited green areas of the city, the Tineretului Park (Parcul Tineretului), what creates a great opportunity of connecting both areas in the future. Summarizing, the area is very central (see the map) and accessible, either by private means or by public transportation.
Before the official creation of the Park in 2016 the area was still known as Vacaresti Lake. The name suggested the former projects to that by then “dirty swamp”, also called in the past the Wailing Valley. In the 1980’s, during the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu, the whole Valley, which was a residential area, suffered evictions and works of improvement in order to suit it to urban expansion. The only not drained space was what should turn into the Vacaresti Lake. The plans were firstly to transform that into a recreational lake and ground for sports practice and, for that, the first works took place in 1988. A concrete dam 5 km long in sloping position was raised, enclosing all the area that should be flooded in 1989.
As like as so many other Ceaușescu´s projects, that was a big one, and big constructions usually face unexpected challenges. During the flooding of the new lake a draining problem was not retaining the water on the field. Alternatives were to be though, but right in December 1989 the Romanian Revolution took place, bringing an end to the regime (Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife were shot on 25 December 1989) and its intricate projects. This Communist period and its end is, by the way, a very interesting subject in the country history.
This abrupt change from a 42-years-regime to a new democratic era demanded huge transformations in all country´s spheres, what naturally demanded costs and time. As a result, the future of that dammed field was uncertain. A period of 25 years of vagueness would start. In the 2000´s there was also a concern venue project over there, which in reasons of the financial crises of 2008 forced international investors to dissolve the idea.
As nature is never aware of such man-made problems, it had started occupying that very humid field full with ponds. Interestingly, some people call the area as a delta, once superficial water flows there and from there it percolates into the soil. Studies show that there is a direct connection of that wetland with the groundwater (see Zaharia and Găitănaru). Slowly a much more humid ecosystem in comparison to the pre-dammed one colonized the field and, once the population was not accessing the area, it gained a very natural shape. Nothing was planted or dragged, everything is output of natural processes.
Thanks to nature lovers and activists an organised association was formed in 2012, being that the beginning of a protected area by law. That officialization came out on May 2016, what made Vacaresti the first natural protected area of the city, having the Category V Protected Landscape and Seascape in the IUCN classification. In my short stay in the city I could notice how the other green areas are actually not thought to be natural. All the other parks which I could visit in the central city are basically playgrounds and do not carry any meaning of nature´s enhancement. This natural protection status over there is a sort of alleviation for the city.
Getting there requires overpassing the dam structures, but once you are there it is a relief sensation of being far from all the rest. The noise coming from the big streets around gets imperceptible in the middle of the Park. The vegetation is characteristic from wetlands (why not to compare with the Okavongo Delta?) and consists of 101 species. An impressive fauna variety followed the revegetation process. This resilience process brought even insect species not seen before, as listed briefly in a description made by the Vacarest Park Association. The fauna consists of species of mammals, insects, reptiles, birds, fishes and amphibians.
The Association of the Park, which firstly was created firstly to achieve the creation of the park, received in 2017 by the Romanian Environmental Ministry the designation to manage the Park for a period of 10 years. Interesting and important is that the Association at the same time organises projects and activities with the society, but also follows the prior management plan, which intend to give the land the minimum infrastructure. When I was there I got curious to know if there is any project to demolish at least in part that concrete dam in order to connect the Park to the neighbor dwellings, but, understanding better now what the goals are, I guess I have the negative answer.
Researching for this small article I found some guided tours that are offered in the Park. I admit that I went by my own just with a map, but maybe a tour would have brought some important insights that I did not have. The Walk About Free Tours seems to organise special tours to there. The Romanian Friend seems to organise something on demand and the guide also seems to be a nature enthusiastic.
How I got there
Although I want to support those good people that are promoting the space, I have to admit that I followed my low budget instinct, and to get there I did everything independently.
As I wrote at the very beginning, there is another Park very close to Vacaresti. In that Park, better known as Tineretului, there is a bike rental service just at the main entrance, close to the underground station Tineretului (see map). The bicycles are those kind of bike sharing, that means, nothing so adequate to crossing dams. But, anyway, I rented the bicycle for two hours and crossed the Park, heading to Vacaresti Park. Between both parks there is a huge avenue called Calea Văcăreșt. After finally crossing that avenue I found an access close to the Asmita Gardens (see map). Over there the access is not easy carrying a heavy bicycle, but, after being slightly challenged by some declivity and slopes, the recompense was worthy of the urban adventure!
This short article is the result of a trip and subsequent short research. The intention is to disseminate knowledge and encourage discussions.