The Strange Case of Bucharest’s Lake Văcăreşti

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What happens when an ambitious and unfinished Communist construction project meets the uncontrollable growth of nature? A few kilometers from the historical center of the Romanian capital of Bucharest, there is a unique ‘ring’ of cement. When looked at from the outside, this wall of concrete looks like an impenetrable military fortress. Some intrepid visitors come to climb it, and some to simply ‘enjoy’ the somewhat unexpected view inside the vast concrete mass: a green oasis, made from plants, swamps, migratory birds, fish, dogs and some families of gypsies. All this is in the middle of the city, just a few meters from a residential area and shopping malls.

During the communist era there were many ambitious development plans for Romania. One of these involved the construction of an artificial lake connected to the river Dâmboviţa, creating a sort-of mini port in the city. The concrete perimeter of this artificial lake is almost 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) in length and the ‘lake’ itself is about 190 hectares in size. However, its Communist engineers made a few miscalculations around land height, and because of this the large wall has never been filled with water. An artificial lake, except for the fact that it does contain, and never has contained, a large mass of water.

After 1989, following the revolution and the fall of the Communist regime, the project was left incomplete. Slowly, nature took over. Some groundwater sources not envisaged by the designers began to gush from the ground bringing with them fish species not endemic to the area. The large surface slowly turned in a wetland with migratory birds, also not typically found in the city, finding shelter in the area and bringing seeds of different plants.

In recent years, the wetland has become a source of great interest for public institutions and private investors. The area is home to 90 species of birds that are rather rare in the country, and the Minister for the Environment wants to turn the lake into a protected urban reserve due to its unique status in Romania and indeed the world. There are some, however, who would like to invest in the ground. A variety of ideas have emerged, from golf courses to developing a modern residential area. However, the soil does not seem suitable for construction given its marshy nature. Furthermore the area is currently owned by the Ministry for the Environment, with an array of environmentalists and large NGOs supporting the project’s potential status as an urban nature reserve. In particular, the Romanian National Geographic (May 2012 no. 109) published a long article with several photographs of the area’s unique birds and mammals to raise awareness of the project.

I had the opportunity to visit the lake Văcăreşti during an intensive program on the development of the European peripheries, held at the University Ion Mincu in Bucharest (check out this video interview on the subject). It is a unique and surreal site which is definitely worth preserving and monitoring. The evolution of nature and how it has taken over the built environment has a special charm. Perhaps the cement that holds your city together may one day follow the evolution and fate of the lake Văcăreşti.

Alessandro Vino is Editor of This Big City in italiano

Images via Alexandru Gabriel, Mariciu and EVZ

  • Jonathan Cook

    This is a fantastic and surreal place to visit. An awesomely large wetland surrounded by the urban sprawl of Bucharest.
    I visited in early May 2014 and I could only stay for an hour as time was limited, due to extremely wet weather conditions (large downpours and huge hail stones).
    It was alive with birds, most obviously marsh terns busy catching fish in the various pools and the adjacent river to feed to their broods. I think there were both black terns and white winged black terns present.
    The reedbeds were buzzing with warblers, including great reed. And it was great to see several cuckoos around the site.
    Cattle egrets were present in good numbers as were several kestrels and a peregrine was also observed, no doubt nesting on one of the nearby blocks.
    A party of four whinchats were delightful.
    I only saw mallard ducks, but there were probably other species.
    I got the impression that there is a danger that the site could be getting shrubbed and converting to woodland in a larger proportion of the site than in the photos above. Let’s hope that there is some management to retain the wetland.
    On a bank holiday weekend, the site had a few visitors, a few fishermen, a party of students enjoying the green space and a wedding party using it for photographing their happy day.
    I saw no evidence of the type of outdoor use that sometimes destroys such habitat, such as yougsters on scramble bikes, quads etc. Perhaps the high dam walls prevents this type of access.
    I found that access from the north east corner of the site easy. It was from a ‘nice’ neighbourhood of modern apartments. I would have been more wary of entering from certain other locations around the site.
    I hope to return again and spend a full day on site.