Bilbao, an international reference of urban regeneration

José María Menéndez

Bilbao is the main city of the Basque Country, and is currently an important tourist and congress destination, such as for the ISWA 2019 World Congress, which will take place in the Euskalduna Palace between October 7th and 9th, 2019.

But it has not always been like this. Bilbao, a thriving industrial city for over 100 years, hit bottom after the floods of August 1983. Its economic activity was in decline, with an industrial activity pending a profound reconversion, its social life was shattered by terrorist activity and its environmental deterioration was obvious by land, sea and air. The only joys for the society of Bilbao and all of Biscay were provided by Athletic Club, the local football team.

At that time, the different public administrations existing within the complex Basque institutional framework agreed on the need to join forces in orden to design and build the post-industrial Bilbao of the 21st century, marking criteria for the organization of urban spaces, for environmental regeneration and for mobility, covering a metropolitan geographical area, superior to the extensión of the municipality of Bilbao.

What any visitor can appreciate today in Bilbao is the result of many actions coordinated for decades, of an effective public-private partneship, materialized through the societies Bilbao Metropoli 30 (the ideas) and Bilbao Ría 2000 (the actions), all this is favored by the cessation of terrorist violence.

This article intends to make a brief mention of a number of interventions, some of them less known or visible than others, but all important, whose joint effect is the new image and international positioning of Metropolitan Bilbao.

One of the key decisions was the definitive move of the port docks from the heart of the city to the outer Abra (15 km away), which made free industrial spaces on the edge of the estuary to be dedicated to other uses in the center of the city (the new Abandoibarra) and on both banks of the estuary. The urban redevelopment and the subsequent sale of these revalued land  helped funding many of the ambitious actions carried out.

Another of the essential initiatives was the sanitation and environmental recovery of the estuary, which made it possible for the new city to move to face its river artery. This huge work, financed with a charge paid by users for decades, has been complemented with the construction of new bridges over the estuary (Euskalduna, Arrupe, Zubi zuri) and the urban regeneration of the banks of the estuary, now integrated with the city center.

The plan for Abandoibarra (the bank of Abando), on the old fields of the port, included the construction of the famous Guggenheim Museum and the Euskalduna Palace (the seat of the Congress, a building that symbolizes a half-built ship, since it was built on the field once occupied by shipyards), which were complemented with new emblematic and functional buildings, built both in the municipality of Bilbao (the most symbolic is Azkuna Zentroa, the old wine warehouse converted into a modern cultural space in the very heart of the Ensanche) or in the municipalities located on the banks of the estuary (new Exhibitions Center BEC in Barakaldo, new cruise liners terminal in Getxo).

The spaces released by the former Trade Fair have been used for the construction of the new football stadium. It should be mentioned that in Bilbao there are two cathedrals, the religious cathedral of Santiago and the football catedral of San Mamés, home of the Athletic Club.

And the third key to the transformation of Bilbao was the construction of the Bilbao Metro, a modern infrastructure that articulates Metropolitan Bilbao and offers a new mobility, complemented by a tram that functionally integrates new urban initiatives around the estuary.

As a complement to these megaprojects, many additional actions were taken. In the field of architecture, it is worth highlighting the restoration of emblematic buildings and the recovery of traditional architecture, both in the Casco Viejo (Old City) and in Ensanche (Enlargment or Expansion), together with new buildings of modern architecture built in Ensanche and Abandoibarra.

Various regeneration projects have also been undertaken in neighborhoods, such as Casco Viejo and Bilbao la Vieja, with an impact not only on urban planning, but also on social integration and the revitalization of urban life in the suburbs.

The urban transformation of the Ensanche of the late 19th century, and other more peripheral suburbs (improvements in squares and urban spaces, new pedestrian streets), has been favoured by the removal and burial of railway barriers (Renfe suburban, FEVE) and by the sanitation of the estuary.

To consolidate the tourist offer, new hotels have been built, especially in the area of ​​Abandoibarra; and a new airport terminal, which maintains the same landing strips but, since the new terminal stands in another municipality, has changed the name to Bilbao – Loiu airport. The Technology Park of Zamudio – Derio, the first of its kind to open in Spain, was built close to the airport.

Regarding environmental infraestructures, as a complement to the sanitation and regeneration of the estuary, the different waste treatment facilities included in the successive waste management plans for Biscay have been built, many of them are concentrated in the Artigas environmental complex (will be visited during the Congress).

In summary, the urban transformation of Bilbao is the result of the common effort of a city that 35 years ago moved a gear up and has thoroughfully done its homework, in a metropolitan area  covering both Bilbao and nearby municipalities. There have been many projects and actions, costly and complex, but well coordinated. The keys success factors in the transformation from a gray and declining industrial city to a modern, vibrant and future-oriented city of services, have been a shared and long-term vision and an effective public-private partnership.


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