Greening cities: the role of urban pastoralism in Romania

(Shepherd with his flock of 900 sheep on abandoned agricultural land in the periphery of Bucharest. Credits: Petruṭ Călinescu)

Roxana Maria Triboi (Contact: Mincu University of Architecture and Urbanism: Bucharest, RO

Changing pastoralism: from extensive transhumance to restrictions in the socialist era

For centuries, Romania was one of the most important nuclei of pastoralism in Europe. From the Carpathian Mountains pastoralism spread thousands of kilometres through transhumant paths to the Caucasus and Tatra mountains. Shepherds and their flocks travelled for months before reaching their destination. Linguistic studies show that some of terms employed for shepherds’ activities in neighbouring countries in Eastern Europe are of Romanian origin.

However, after World War II, the redrawing and the reinforcement of state borders, along with political changes in Eastern Europe, resulted in the fragmentation of transhumance corridors, reducing them to a few hundred kilometres, restricted to national territories.

The persistence of pastoralism in the Balkans is strongly related to the strategy of countering communist state management by sustaining alternative food networks. The continued existence of the “commons” enhanced the resilience of pastoralism, which unlike other areas of the economy benefitted from a certain freedom and flexibility.

In Romania, pastoral transhumance practices were tolerated only in the land unexploited by intensive agriculture, forestry and urbanization. Shepherds were among the few independent entrepreneurs that managed somehow to avoid collectivisation. Pastoralism’s capacity to manage uncertainty and marginal resources permitted an escape from state oppression, reinforcing resilience in the socialist period.

De-collectivisation and urban sprawl in the post-socialist period

The transition from a socialist to a capitalist regime was characterised by a set of rapid and complex changes. Solutions for dealing with uncertainty based on previous experiences of the communist era – through avoiding the state system while integrating informal markets and community networks – were important.

The de-collectivisation process from the beginning of the 1990s meant the fragmentation of state farms into small plots and their redistribution to the original owners. Many did not have the means adequately to exploit them, and this led to a massive process of land abandonment.

At the same time there was a chaotic process of urban sprawl that characterised post-socialist city development in Romania. This put pressure on rural peripheries, through aggressive land speculation and fragmentation of agricultural land on the fringes of cities and created a complicated patchwork of open spaces, seen as sites for future expansion of the city.

(Urban pastoralism, periphery of Bucharest. Credits: Nicolas Triboi)

However, these areas became essential for the growth of a new urban pastoralism. Shepherds’ know-how and informal networks allowed flocks to make use of flexible mobility across these spaces.

Urban pastoralism: from fragile to recognized and sustainable practice

Since the fall of communism, on the peripheries of Bucharest in Romania, the pastoralism had expanded, even if in the last decade the decline it’s becoming obvious. Some shepherds own more than 2000 sheep. The pictures within this blog provide a colourful impression of the atmosphere, activities and the setting of the new urban pastoralism.

(Urban pastoralism, periphery of Bucharest. Credits: Nicolas Triboi)
(Urban pastoralism, periphery of Bucharest. Credits: Petruṭ Călinescu)

However, urban pastoralists, such as those in these pictures, face many challenges. The patches of land that provide grazing resources often have unknown landowners and use rights are uncertain. Shepherding is seen negatively by many, and shepherds have a low professional status, and can easily be moved on. Competition with large, dominant food distribution networks and supermarkets makes economic viability a big challenge. And changes in cultural patterns of food consumption can mean that pastoralists’ products are no longer valued as they once were, even if we notice an upcoming demand by city dwellers for authentic food and cultural landscape.

Green cities: the role of pastoralism

Yet pastoral practices – drawing on past practices of transhumance and managing uncertainty but adapted to new settings – are central to conserving green spaces around and within cities. As protectors of ecosystem services, pastoralists are important. So, can city planners and public policies help pastoralists?

For example, urban areas designated for and devoted to extensive grazing – with both permanent and temporary use rights – needs to be integrated into city planning. The multi-functionality of major ecological corridors needs to be recognised, as these can connect urban parks to agricultural land through flock transhumance, combined with leisure and cultural activities.

(Urban pastoralism, periphery of Bucharest. Credits: Nicolas Triboi)

Pastoralism, together with other uses, can therefore enhance the role of open spaces within cities as green infrastructure. Land use and city planning must be combined with rethinking markets and consumption networks. The support and development of well-organised and ‘just’ food chains that integrate local producers can also help to encourage the sustainability of urban pastoralism.

As shown in Bucharest – but also increasingly in other cities across Europe – the rising popularity of urban pastoralism is an opportunity to reflect on role of pastoralism as a sustainable route to developing and managing green spaces in the city.

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