Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
As the city pays more than 20 times the market price for trees, locals smell corruption.
They paid how much?
A new report from the Romanian capital, Bucharest, revealed the huge sums of money the city has squandered on beautifying itself recently—to shocking, even laughable effect. Between 2007 and 2014 the city spent a cool €600 million ($650 million) on aesthetic improvements, consistently paying ridiculous prices for what they bought. Among the more jaw-dropping details are districts paying €1,000 ($1,083) apiece for park benches, and one area splashing out a total of €8,200 ($8,886) on 13 trashcans lovingly fashioned from exotic wood.
To give you an idea of the extent of the overspending, a private buyer in the U.S. can get a high-quality wood bench for scarcely more than $250. Turning again to the retail market, you can pick up a wood-lined trashcan for around $275. Any municipal buyer could surely expect to get a significant cut on these prices for a bulk order, but Bucharest’s districts consistently paid more—much more—for everything. When it came to trees and plants, for example, its district at times paid over 20 times the market price.
This would be grating but possibly tolerable if these districts used the stuff they bought well. But they didn’t. One example is the $108,000 that Bucharest’s Sector 3 spent on trees that later dried up or were stolen. Another is the huge amount of flower troughs Sector 6 bought, only to dump them in random places in the middle of sidewalks.
Even money that reached its target was, to an extent, squandered. The city forked out €7 million ($7.6 million) on renovating central avenue Bulevardul Unirii (you can see the work in progress on this Google Street View shot), but just 1.5 million ($1.6 million) of that went on greenery. Much of the rest went to slippery granite paving with ornamental concrete insets, a finish whose grandiose fugliness is visible in photos accompanying this article.
All of this happened during a period when green space across the city was shrinking fast, from 23.2 meters (250 feet) per capita in 2007 to 9.9 square meters (106 feet) in 2012. It’s true that official figures still show a more generous ratio, but also they include private land to which ordinary people have no access.
Taken together, these spending figures smack heavily of corruption. Indeed, given the consistency of the mismanagement, it would almost be more disturbing if incompetence, rather than contract kickbacks, were actually behind the terrible choices. Reading the abuses detailed in the report would surely make any ordinary Bucharest resident despair of their leaders and their city.
Still, there’s hope. Those figures don’t come from a media or NGO exposé. They were actually released by Romania’s national audit office, the Curtea de Conturi. Faced with arguably endemic corruption, sections of Romanian officialdom are getting their act together, and prosecutions for graft are rising. Bucharest’s mayor was arrested on suspicion of taking bribes last September (he’s since been put on hiatus). Such moves are admittedly being taken against a backdrop of intense pressure from a public that’s sick of abuse—a pressure that has already boiled over into demonstrations.
In October, a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that ultimately killed 63 people sparked understandable fury. The premises had been approved by the local borough, even though they were in fact a fire hazard just waiting to blow. As demonstrators flooded the city’s streets, the mayor of the Bucharest district responsible for granting the nightclub’s permit was arrested. This alone wasn’t enough to quell public anger, leading to a dramatic, unexpected turn of events. With Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta himself under investigation for corruption, the entire Romanian government was forced forced to resign after losing a no-confidence vote.
In a climate like this, Bucharest’s officials should find it harder to get away such abuses as paying €68 for flowers that were really only worth €3. Still, when it comes to a complete overhaul of the system, not everyone in a weary public that has experienced years of this stuff will be holding their breath.