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Urban evolution towards resilience

The successful story of a city's transformation strategy
Bilbao / Spain
Size of city: 
345 122 inhabitants


Asier Abaunza Robles
Deputy Councellor of the Urban Planning Area
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In 80 years, Bilbao has transformed itself from an obsolete industrial city into a knowledge-based economic centre. Investments in infrastructure have successfully rejuvenated the city and resulted in better social cohesion. A wide range of single interventions in the fields of the environment (the clean-up of the Nervion river), mobility (the underground's construction) and culture (the building of the Guggenheim Museum) have been integrated into a coherent vision. The implementation of these projects was possible thanks to a combination of different mechanisms: a perspective on urban development that goes beyond the city's limits, a multisector governance involving both the public and private actors, and an inclusive public participation.

The solutions offered by the good practice

Bilbao's urban evolution is the result of a wide range of single interventions integrated into a common, agreed and coherent city vision. Some interventions stand out for being not only emblematic, but for acting as catalysts in the development process.
a) Environmental restoration of the heavily polluted waters of the Nervion river and estuary.
b) Elimination of railway barriers and obsolete associated infrastructures, releasing public space for multiple uses
c) Improvement of mobility and accessibility by means of the construction of the underground, the tram and new bridges.
d) Massive regeneration of urban public space and social housing development in the river banks in Abando- Ibarra, with the construction of the Guggenheim museum as an outstanding landmark.

The implementation of those projects was possible thanks to the combination of different mechanisms:
a) A supra-municipal perspective of urban development, i.e. consideration of the interventions in the context of Bilbao's metropolitan functional area
b) Multisector (horizontal) and multilevel (vertical) governance approach with different formulas and ad hoc public-public and public-private partnerships in place.
c) Public administrations at all levels participating and contributing with a land property, resulting from abandoned infrastructures and industrial uses.
d) Truly inclusive and open public participation, facilitated by external professionals in the context of the Plan for Urban Zoning.

Building on the sustainable and integrated approach

Bilbao's urban evolution has built upon the principles of sustainability, resilience, inclusive urban development and regeneration. Bilbao has used a holistic and integrated approach in order to cope with its social challenges (poverty reduction, social exclusion), its environmental problems and the loss of competitiveness in the context of a deep economic decline. The transformation strategy relies on one hand on the horizontal integration of interventions that combine physical, economic, social, environmental and climate resilience dimensions, and on the other hand vertical integration with a multi-stakeholder cooperation at all levels of government and local players (local administration, civil society, private sector, etc.), between different levels of governance (local, regional national, EU), and finally territorial integration of interventions in the functional urban area represented in the Bilbao Metropolitan Area.
The city strategy aims at contributing to the objectives of the EU Operative Program of Sustainable Growth:
OT2: Smart City approach in the field of mobility and lighting.
OT4: Boosting the transition to a low carbon economy
OT6: Rehabilitation of urban areas, and greening of urban spaces towards flood risk reduction
OT9: Development of cultural, social and entrepreneur activities in old and disused industrial facilities
OT11: Developing institutional capacity, and promoting efficiency in public administration.

Based on a participatory approach

Since the post-industrial transformation governance, the lessons learned materialised in a mature, robust, transparent and truly social participatory and inclusive planning process. Open public participation facilitated by external professionals has been incorporated by the municipality in the context of the Plan for Urban Zoning, as a key component of the continuous urban regeneration and transformation process. The progress of the new General Plan of Urban Zoning is open to participation, allowing a redefinition of the city model for the next years. Many participation processes have been carried out, and were nourished with contributions and suggestions concerning the articulation of the city transformation strategy. Bilbao offers a multisector and multilevel governance approach with different formulas in place, depending on the needs of each project and intervention.

A) Public-public partnership: in the early 1990s, Bilbao Ria 2000, an ad hoc public company, was created for the land management and urban regeneration operations in metropolitan Bilbao. It represented an effective framework to align government, business and the community towards a shared vision for the city.

B) Public-private partnership. For a project such as the Zorrotzaurre Peninsula, an alternative model was created, namely the Commission Management.

What difference has it made?

The experience of Bilbao as a comprehensive city project, incrementally executed through more than 25 urban projects over 30 years and still ongoing, has achieved a profound transformation of the city. Bilbao has significantly improved its environment and quality of life, strengthened its social cohesiveness and cultural vibrancy and also increased its economic competitiveness.
Strong GDP growth: from € 6 695m in 1980 to € 66.208m in 2009.
Industrial strength: Creation and/or consolidation of Advanced Technology Centres such as Tecnalia and IK4.
Investment in R+D: 2.1% of the GDP, exceeding the EU average Good Governance: zero debt. Tourist evolution: from 24.302 visitors in 1994 to 734.215 in 2012. More than a 50% increase in visitor numbers between 1997-2012, linked to the city's cultural services and attractiveness.

Why should other European cities use it?

The good practice offered by Bilbao provides evidence of the effective performance of single interventions implemented over the years, which interrelate among them towards the construction of a common and agreed vision of the city. Bilbao has faced, and faces today, the urban challenges common in other cities across Europe (i.e. improving environmental quality and climate resilience, social cohesion and inclusion, economic prosperity and quality of life in general terms).
However, the most interesting aspect of Bilbao's good practice is that it also offers an urban development pathway with key elements that have been proved successful towards sustainable, territorially coherent, socially accepted, resilient, long-term and still ongoing transformation.
Those key elements are:
• An integrated and holistic approach to achieve economic, social and physical transformations;
• A multi-stakeholder management approach: considering ad hoc formulas attending different needs at different moments in the process;
• A feasible financial operation: public landowners releasing land in central areas of the city, investing in construction and/or housing. Capital gains obtained are invested in regeneration of former industrial areas;
• A robust, truly participative and sustainable public policy framework. In this context, the Plan for Urban Zoning assures, consolidates and allows a common, long-term and coherent vision for the future in the city.