Danube Delta


An interdisciplinary project on the Danube Delta Area


This project is carried out by an interdisciplinary team from Minnesota State University, Leuven University, Wageningen University, Corvinus University Budapest. 


The Danube Delta area is arguably one of the most beautiful regions in Europe. The ecological richness is astounding, the most conspicuous feature being the unequaled variety of bird species. The cultural complexity of the region is also famous: as a refuge area, it attracted a variety of ethnic groups in the course of centuries –gypsies, Italians, Greeks, Vlachs, Turks, Germans, Austrians, Orthodox old believers, Ukrainians, Tatars. They resided and reside mainly on the islands and the dykes in the vast marshy area. Apart from inward- looking groups, some settlers were more linked to the international trade along the Danube river, a major economic artery in the Habsburg Empire, dissolved after WW I.  The now vanished Ladino- speaking Jewish community can be mentioned here.

All these communities, adapted to the extreme ecological environment, are currently changing, partly in response to a series of pressures currently  perceived in the area. The pressures are ecological in nature (the swamp is polluted and drying up), economic (the modes of existence are becoming untenable and undesirable presently), and social (communities are redefining their goals and themselves, some are vanishing as recognizable social units).

Given this particular situation, this research project combines disciplines in a flexible way in order to get a complex picture of environment, pressures, responses to pressures,  social change, and the possibilities of policy interventions, mainly in the form of spatial planning and landscape architecture, to improve the situation.


  • Iordachi, C. Van Assche, K., Eds. (2013) Biopolitics and the Danube Delta, Budapest- New York: Central European University Press. [forthcoming]
  • Van Assche, K., Bell, S., Teampau, P. (2012) ‘Traumatic natures in the swamp. Concepts of nature and participatory governance in the Danube delta’, Environmental Values, 21 (2): 163-183.
  • Van Assche, K., Duineveld, M., De Jong, H., van Zoest, A. (2012) ‘What place is this time? Semiotics and the analysis of historical reference in landscape architecture’, Journal of Urban Design, 17 (2): 233 -254.
  • Van Assche, K., Duineveld, M., Beunen, R., Teampau, P. (2011) ‘Delineating locals. Knowledge/ power and the evolving governance of the Danube delta’, Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, 13 (1): 1-21.
  • Van Assche, K., Beunen, R., Jacobs, J., Teampau, P. (2011) ‘Crossing trails in the marshes. Flexibility and rigidity in the governance of the Danube delta’, Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 54 ( 8): 997-1018.
  • Van Assche, K., Teampau, P. (2010) ‘’Landscape of the year’ Social systems theory and the study of cultural and ecological adaptation in the Romanian Danube delta’, Studia Politica, 15 (1): 83- 102.
  • Teampau, P., Van Assche, K. (2009) ‘Migratory marginalities: making sense of home, self and mobility’, Ethnologia Balkanica, 13: 147- 163.
  • Teampau, P., Van Assche, K. (2009) ‘Sulina, Sulina, when there’s water, there’s no light. Memory andautobiography in a Romanian town’, Identities. Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture, 7 (1-2): 33-70.
  • Van Assche, K, Devlieger, P, Teampau, P., Verschraegen, G. (2009) ‘Forgetting and remembering in the margins: Constructing past and future in the Romanian Danube Delta’,  Memory Studies, 2 (2): 211-234.
  • Van Assche, K. Teampau, P. (2009) ‘Layered encounters. Performing multiculturalism and the urban palimpsest at the ‘gateway to Europe’, Anthropology of Eastern Europe Review, 27 (2): 7-18.
  • Van Assche, K., Teampau, P., Devlieger, P., Suciu, C. (2008) ‘Liquid boundaries in marginal marshes. Reconstructions of identity in the Romanian Danube Delta’, Studia Sociologia, 53 (1): 115- 133.
  • Teampau, P., Van Assche, K. (2007) ‘Sulina- The dying city in a vital region. Social memory and nostalgia for the European future’, Ethnologia Balkanica, 11: 257-278.


General frame –basic concepts

General narrative

  • Starting point is the ethnic diversity of the area: identities in the swamp, on the islands
  • The area is subjected to a variety of pressures: economically, socially, ecologically
  • Combinations of these pressures result in different strategies of the ethnicities to redefine themselves
  • In an area with a variety of identities, the interaction of these redefinitions should be studied
  • The redefinitions build on cultural, economic, ecological resources: the resources are the building blocks enabling communities to redefine practice and self- conception
  • Meanwhile, the evolution of some pressures is easy to model and predict, of others not. The same goes for the coping strategies of the communities.
  • This adds to the complexity of possible planning interventions
  • Possibilities and limits of planning are exquisitely visible in this area, because of the features outlined above. Multiple identities are present, multiple pressures, multiple transition strategies, multiple valuations of the landscape and its resources, multiple ideals for a new spatial order, variable predictability.

Some concepts and principles

  • social construction of reality: interpretations of reality differ in a socially structured manner.
  • ethnicities are social groups, defining themselves as separate from other groups, sharing a common concept of self and outside world.  These conceptual structures change in the course of time.
  • disciplines are social constructs
  • interdisciplinary research starts from shared questions, not from an a priori defined shared frame.
  • questions of shared conceptual frame and shared language should be resolved on the spot, in specific cases, not in general and at the outset.
  • the primacy of discipline A or B  in answering a question should be shown in the process of answering that question, not in advance.
  • a resource for one ethnicity is not necessarily recognizable as such for another group
  • the same applies to pressures, landscape values, ideals
  • in the analysis of potentials for planning, no model of planning will be taken for granted, no existing planning system will be taken to represent the planning enterprise as a whole. Planning is therefore every systematic intervention in the landscape envisioning the future, every systematic thinking about such an intervention, with the participation of some kind of administration.

Products of the matrix


of history, geography, ecology, ethnology, political, administrative and economic situation in the Danube delta area. Involving the disciplines listed above. Possibility to combine topics and disciplines.

Predictions –models

Mainly economics and ecology. Economic models and ecologic models could be addressed and possibly combined.  Consequences of economic activities on ecology and vice versa can be modeled. E.g. eco- tourism, forms of agriculture, hydrological changes, artificial and otherwise.

Analysis of diverse pressures

Pressures, and related, risks, are defined in communities. The disciplines can show and predict evolutions that are potentially perceived as threats. Ecological pressures are clear, and are more clearly defined in a discipline: ecological quality is defined in the discipline of ecology, and a loss of quality points at an environment under pressure.  Relations between the ecological pressures defined in the discipline, and the valuations and images of nature and environment among the communities, is worth studying. The economic situation of the area, and the different communities within it, can be modeled in economics; the relations between the economic image of area and people on the one hand, and the image of self and future in the communities on the other hand, deserve equally attention

Interactions between pressures

Starting from the point that pressures can be defined differently among communities, and differently among disciplines, it still remains the case that threats are perceived by most of the disciplines and communities, and that consensus on some pressures is striking. The lowering of the water levels is provoking an ecological and economic disaster at a huge scale. Income of the people on the islands is extremely low, also according to their own standards. These standards are rising, given the perception of wealth in other groups, and abroad.

The analysis of the economic, ecological, cultural situation becomes more complicated if one takes into account the multitude of interactions between the diversely identified pressures. Lowering water tables provoke economic troubles that provoke ecological troubles that provoke cultural changes etc.

Analysis of coping mechanisms with pressures

Most of the communities do not remain passive in the face of the pressures identified. Some people simply move out of the area, some adopt a semi- nomadic lifestyle, some change their profession, some try to change the landscape etc.

 Interactions between coping mechanisms and the communities using them

What applied to the pressures, also applies to the coping mechanisms: they influence each other, and the pattern and mechanics of this influence has to be grasped in order to understand fully the interdependence of social and natural world and the interdependence of the different social sub- systems [economics, religion,  ethnicity, politics] Responses of one group to a perceived pressure can affect the options available to other groups in the area, and provoke a response there. A perceived economic pressure can lead to a cultural change in the same group, to a different impact on ecology etc.  Coping mechanisms influence each other, and influence pressures causing other coping mechanisms and pressures.

Analysis of ethnic and economic redefinition processes

Partly in response to perceived pressures, partly in response to other events, partly by accident, ethnic and economic redefinition processes take place. Communities redefine themselves continually, often maintaining myths of continuity and stability in the meantime. Part of the ethnic redefinition and partly causing it, is a constant process of shifting economies. Even a fishing community changes it techniques, changes its market structure, adapts to changing bigger markets.

 Reexamination of sustainability concepts

In the light of the preceding schematization, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine sustainability criteria. If one has a variety of communities with differing goals and changing definitions of self, a natural environment subject to drastic changes, the variety and quality of sustainability concepts should be addressed, as well as the ways they are applied: once agreed upon a definition, how far should we go to implement it? In economic term: what can be the costs of sustainability?

Potential of visioning in planning

Visioning, working with scenario’s, different possible futures visualized in plans, could be a tool in research and planning. It could be a tool to study the communities, for social as well as economic aspects. Apart from that, it could be a tool to address planning needs as perceived by the communities. The specific complexity of the area could shed a clearer light on the limitations of visioning, and simultaneously on its workings. More generally, the limits of visioning can lead to reflections on the limits and features of planning in general.

Potential of landscape design

Landscape architecture, defined as the discipline concerned with the appearance of an area, concerned with the accommodation of esthetical and functional desires in the landscape, could play a part in research and planning. The shape of a newly designed landscape can inform us about a community, about economic consequences, ecological consequences etc. At the same time, architectural interventions in the landscape can attempt to resolve some of the pressures perceived, preferably as much pressures as possible for as much communities and people as possible. However, the ‘as possible’ phrasing points at the limits of architecture as a tool in solving a community’s problems. [See the last paragraph on visioning and planning]

Strategies of governance

Present and possible strategies of governance should be examined against a set of backgrounds. One of them being the heritage of communist times, or rather, the character of Rumanian as a post- communist state.  Another one being the Danube Delta area as an area serious pressures –see above. A third context being the multi- ethnic character of the area: what specific governance issues are raised by this? In the end, an attempt should be undertaken to combine the contexts, to provide an outline of the present principles of governance in the area, as well as an outline for possible strategies of intervention, for new forms of governance.

Most general outcome

This way, a contribution to all the participating disciplines can be made, a contribution to the study of interdisciplinary research methodology, as well as an improved insight in the nature and limits of the disciplines of spatial planning and landscape architecture.