Best known for being home to a mishmash of alternately stunning and soul-crushing architecture and a sizable population of stray dogs, the Romanian capital city of Bucharest — most certainly not to be confused with Budapest — is the sixth largest city in the European Union, more populous than Vienna but a touch smaller than Paris — a city, in a previous era, to which it was so often compared.

For a city of such considerable size (a little under 2 million residents in the city proper), Bucharest comes equipped with a fair amount of public green space — it’s certainly not the greenest city in Europe but residents and visitors do enjoy access to several top-notch parks: Herăstrău Park, Tineretului Park, Carol Park, Kiseleff Park, Titan Park and, last but not least, the majestic Cișmigiu Gardens.

Bucharest’s newest and largest public green space, Văcărești Nature Park is a bit of an anomaly as far as city parks go. A just-designated nature park, Văcărești Nature Park is wild, untamed, messy.

Lake Văcărești, Bucharest Centered around an abandoned Soviet-era reservoir project, the 452-acre Văcărești Nature Park is home to a staggering amount of flora and fauna, particularly birds. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

More akin to a protected nature reserve than a manicured urban park, Văcărești, one of the largest urban green spaces in all of Europe at 183 hectares (452 acres), Văcărești is something of a happy accident. All it took was a violent political revolution, the execution of a ruthless communist dictator, a string of failed redevelopment projects and a couple decades of human indifference to get there.

In other words, Văcărești Nature Park wasn’t supposed to be.

It was born a mistake. Described by CityMetric as a “massive hole” in the middle of a dense city, the sprawling wetlands — it’s also referred to as the Bucharest Delta — is a resounding example of what happens when Mother Nature is left to her own devices.

Ringed by towering gray apartment blocks with a large artificial lake at its center, Văcărești Nature Park was supposed to be the site of a hydrological infrastructure project commissioned by the aforementioned ruthless communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu. But the history books had different plans for Ceaușescu and the massive concrete reservoir was abandoned and the barren site around it — a construction site, essentially — was left not to waste.

Instead, it was reborn.

Lake Văcărești, Bucharest Located in the south of Bucharest, not too far from the city center, the vast wetlands of Văcărești Nature Park remain largely untamed. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Neglected and devoid of human activity, the so-called hole began to transform. Nature came back — and in a big way. Now a thriving and diverse ecosystem, this once-blighted place, severed from the rest of the city by a formidable concrete embankment, is home to well over 100 different species of birds, mammals and reptiles. Some denizens of the wetlands, namely the otter, are protected European species.

Explains the Guardian:

There are several sites in Bucharest with a similar history: grand projects ordered by communist leader Ceaușescu that remained unfinished after the 1989 revolution, entangled in overwhelming red tape, thorny legal feuds and a lack of interest from investors. Yet while most of these are now simply ruins or barren land, Văcărești has regenerated itself in the most astonishing way.

Christian Lascu, a former longtime editor at National Geographic Romania who has helped to lead the charge to have the area legally protected by the Romanian government, calls Văcărești “the perfect combination of luck and nature’s resilience.”

In addition to egrets, weasels, foxes, otters and cormorants, a small handful of humans have returned to live (squat, technically) within the sprawling wetlands of Văcărești. Some of them, mostly Roma families, were forced out of their homes during the Ceaușescu regime.

Lake Văcărești, Bucharest In addition to nature, humans, mostly drifters and Roma squatters, have reclaimed the former communist wasteland around Lake Văcărești. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The human inhabitants of the newly minted Văcărești Nature Park act as unofficial stewards of the park. Lascu refers to the Roma lake-dwellers as “part of the ecosystem of the lake.”

Lascu’s colleague, Dan Bărbulescu, explains to the Guardian that one of Văcăreșt’s resident Roma, a man named Gica, could potentially be named as the park’s inaugural ranger. That is, when the time comes.

As reported by CityMetric in 2014, Gica has lived within Bucharest’s urban wetlands for over 16 years and views himself as the bird-loving “warden” of the lake, a lake that he regularly fishes when he needs to feed himself and his brood.

“I won’t move. Why? I love it here. Fresh air. A large garden — a place for children to run free,” Gica explained.

From the sounds of it, Gica doesn’t intend to relocate from this accidental urban oasis now that Văcărești is a real-deal protected nature park immune from future development.

Lake Văcărești, Bucharest

The move to protect Văcărești began in 2012. Just last month, a group of local environmental activists, bound together as Văcărești Nature Park Association, claimed success. The association refers to itself as a “a clear example that a civic initiative that is promoted with perseverance and competence can be successfully completed, despite the numerous bureaucratic obstacle.”

Văcărești's official nature park status is quite impressive, really, considering that Bucharest, in its modern history, has proven to be one giant bureaucratic obstacle.

“Over the last almost 4 years, we have heard the word ‘impossible’ many times, but this hard-earned victory proved that it is possible,” says Helmut Ignat, a nature photographer and founding member of the association alongside Lascu and Bărbulescu, the latter who acts as the conservation organization’s executive director. “We hope that this encourages the cities’ communities in their fight for every square meter of real green space.”

This all said, Văcărești Nature Park isn’t exactly ready for its grand public debut.

While Bărbulescu and his cohorts have saved it, another entity needs to manage it. Furthermore, significant work needs to be performed — work that will clean up the wetlands and make it a wee bit more visitor-friendly while paying careful mind to its biggest attribute: wildlife.

Lake Văcărești, Bucharest Although Mother Nature has reclaimed Văcărești in a most dramatic manner, the new park still needs some human TLC before opening to the general public. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During its 2014 tour of Văcărești, CityMetric witnessed small-scale logging, illegal dumping and hush-hush hanky-panky. (“I see one guy in his early thirties, naked except for a baseball cap, sunglasses, shorts and a pair of trainers. His tanned skin is waxed clean and he smiles and says ‘Good day’ as he walks past. It’s clear he’s not a fisherman or a jogger, so I assume he’s there for another reason …”)

The Văcărești Nature Park Association explains what needs to be done moving forward in a press release:

What nature has already accomplished must be protected without delay, by eliminating all human activities which have a negative impact, such as cutting trees, setting the reeds on fire, poaching, various forms of pollution, relocating stray dogs, acceptable solutions for those temporarily living inside the park. Last, but not least, one must clarify all land claim case files and find legal solutions to compensate the persons entitled.

As far as securing an administrator to manage the park goes, that’s an aspect of Văcărești’s rebirth that Bărbulescu and co. are confident will fall into place eventually. Ideally, the Văcărești Nature Park Association would grow and evolve into the role of park administrator but, as the Guardian explains, the association needs financial support as new parks in Romania aren’t automatically supported by the government.

“The main challenge now is to create an organisation that will manage the park,” explains Bărbulescu. “We still need support locally and internationally. I’d love to have Sir David Attenborough coming to visit Văcărești. I think I’ll write him a letter.”

Inset photo: Wikimedia Commons

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Bucharest's new urban nature park is a 450-acre twist of fate
Văcărești Nature Park shows what happens when dictators get the boot and Mother Nature takes center stage.