Bilbao: Making is Believing
When architect Susana González was transferred by her firm from Buenos Aires to Bilbao in the early 80s, she looked around in tears at the soot-covered buildings and the sludge-choked river, thinking she had been given a hardship post. Urban and industrial overdevelopment over a century, between 1880 and 1980, made for an ugly landscape scarred by industrial excesses in a port city dominated by the iron and shipping industries. Employee strikes and unrest, resulted in 30% unemployment, as the best, including large employers like General Electric and Westinghouse, left the city in droves. The year 1983 brought severe inundation to the city, as the river overflowed, flooding cathedrals and uprooting infrastructure.
When the going gets tough, it is said the tough get going. Crisis turned into a challenge for the resilient and persistent Basque spirit, transforming the city radically over the next 30 years. Development agencies such as Bilbao Ria 2000, which executes town-planning projects and Bilbao Metropoli-30, a public private local development agency, have been instrumental in turning around the face and the fortunes of the city on the Ibaizabal.
Established with a budget of €1.8 billion, Bilbao Ria 2000, was set up as a publicly-owned company, 50% owned by the Spanish government and 50% by regional and local institutions. Landowners, such as the Bilbao Port Authority and railway companies, transfer their property rights to Bilbao Ria 2000 for interventions and improvements to be carried out. Bilbao Ria 2000 then sells the brownfield sites to private developers and recoups the money invested, ploughing that into strategic urban initiatives. Famously, culture and design excellence were used to enhance the environment and attract new investments and industries.
90% of the citizens now say they are happy with their city, especially evident on occasions like the summer’s Noche Blanca, when iconic landmarks by starchitects and celebrity artists such as Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, Louise Bourgeouis, Cesar Pelli, Alvaro Siza, Santiago Calatrava and Ricardo Legoretta make citizens palpably proud of their city. Bilbao has managed to avoid some of the overtly negative reaction to tourism suffered by cities like Barcelona. Tourism in general, contributes 5% of the city’s GDP.
Unlike other cities in Spain, Bilbao has succeeded, without the customary fanfare, to pull itself out of debt seven years ago. Over at City Hall, administrators are keen to point out that the much-admired “Guggenheim Effect” was only the tip of the iceberg. It was the culmination of a post-industrial model which began on a war footing between 1985 and 2010 and the bill for which was footed 35% by the provincial Bizkaia government and 12% by the central government. The four main thrusts of the regeneration were:
- improving external accessibility and internal mobility, which meant a focus on the airport, extension of the port at the mouth of the estuary, new metro lines, a new tramway and new bridges.
- a massive regeneration of the environment, mainly draining and cleaning the river, pedestrianizing industrial strips along the river, dismantling railway barriers and the green belt and creating micro-spaces for social integration in neighbourhoods as part of a new spirit of eco-urbanism
- investing in human resources and technology innovation (creating a techno-park and university infrastructure)
- and finally, the superbly-curated Fine Art Museum, along with the Congress Palace, was part of the cultural regeneration which included restoration and repurposing of traditional architecture of the Stock Exchange, the Main Square, stations, markets and a wine warehouse.
Moving the harbour to the mouth of the estuary freed up the banks of rivers, “reconquering” the river for many more services for citizens. What few visitors realise is that the environmental regeneration of the river started ten years before the museum was built and cost €800 million, roughly six times the cost of building the Guggenheim. This investment was gradually recovered by increased water rates paid by citizens.
Success of the Bilbao plan is also attributed to a fine-tuned balancing of local, provincial, regional and national powers, a multi-tier cooperation model for urban planning, tax collection, policy-making and land acquisition.
Like four fingers knuckling back from the Bay of Biscay, the metropolitan area of Bilbao covers 35 municipalities around the Ibaizabal estuary. It may be the 5th most populous metropolitan area in Spain but in physical size, it is three times smaller than the 6th largest, Málaga. As the tenth most populous city, Bilbao itself is a tiny 40.65 sq. kms, less than half of the 9th largest city in the country. Yet, it is home to half the population and economic activity of the Basque country.
Having established itself as a yardstick for post-industrial cities, the city is lately intent on broadening the Bilbao area of influence to the hinterland and to promote its capital status. The specialisation strategy it has honed in on revolve on creative industries (art, technology and design); tourism and health; urban solutions and environmental technologies and advanced industrial services. Bilbao is working to occupy the first five EU territories in terms of employment, GDP, education and health care for elderly.
Its political struggles with Madrid may sometimes make it inward looking and nativist, but internationalisation is on the cards: outward connectivity complemented by inward mobility. “We would like to be more engaged with city councils and participate in city networks and commit to more continuity in international projects,” says Iñaki Etxebarria Lekanda, director general of Bilbao Cimubisa, the ICT provider to Bilbao's municipality.
One of the first initiatives taken by Etxebarria, who was handpicked by the current mayor, Juan María Aburto, to strategise on smart governance, is identifying and bringing synergy to some 500 projects going on in City Council and some 15 to 20 in the private sector. The emerging ecosystem of Smart Bilbao includes Bilbao Port, SMEs, universities, citizens, other public administrations, the Bilbao Metropoli-30, and in the government, over 80 managers from different rungs of the administrative ladder. The administration is clear that being smart is more than about technology and digital experience. “Technology is insufficient without a resolute and action-oriented leadership,” says Etxebarria.
Among the initiatives are a push to develop analytics from a mix of city data and data from other companies such as BBVA and social networks. Tourist use of mobiles on the public wifi is one application as is anonymously detecting how people move across the city. The applications would include image matching to identify vacant properties throughout the city and provide this to parties looking for space.
While the city got back its spaces for culture and leisure from ports and the iron and shipping industries, quick recovery of investment by development meant that housing was the big casualty. A remarkable 60% of the housing stock is provided free by the government. It is difficult to get land for houses, because of Bilbao’s layout in a narrow valley, local architect Oihana Arruti points out. Therefore, homebuilding can only expand upwards, which is not good, ecologically. The city had to reconcile with the houses clinging to the hillsides by building funiculars for access. For new housing, the city has to recover unused spaces or find other directions to grow.
Which is where the next phase of development would be useful. The peninsula of Zorrotzaurre is an 84-hectare area is cradled in a long curve of the Ibaizabal River, just across from the city’s centre. Among the last legacies of British-Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid, is a master plan for the peninsula, a contaminated brownfield site which is owned in equal parts by government and the private sector.
After a few tweaks to the masterplan, the former port and industrial area is planned to become home to nearly 15,000 new residents and will provide workshops, labs, incubators, studios and offices for nearly 6,000 working people. Among the dozens of projects planned for the island are a 7.5 km riverside promenade, electric and public transport and a square kilometre of Living Labs.
Sound economic sense drives the future planning of Bilbao. If urban transformation pre-occupied the city through the 80s and 90s, the year 2008 marked the advent of the knowledge economy. Planners sees employment as the backbone for social harmony. In its bid to generate and consolidate jobs for its citizens, there is a great focus on IT big-names associated with higher salaries. “The old labour force was too focussed on manufacturing, we had to go up the value-added ladder,” says Etxebarria.
SEEING VS MAKING
While its new focus may be on the knowledge economy, Bilbao is by DNA a ‘maker’ city. Even the late Mayor Iñaki Azkuna, most strongly associated with Bilbao's turnaround, was the son of a metallurgist and a seamstress.
To its credit, in a bid to protect the social and territorial balance of the city, local authorities have opened over the last three years five centres (the Auzo Factory Concept) in peripheral neighbourhoods. Disused industrial or office buildings are being reactivated as centres of enterepreneurship with a view to distribute livelihood opportunities and to revitalise the places in which they are located. The centres, spread throughout the city are dedicated to culture and leisure, digital economy, open source software, open data and open innovation, performing arts and design and fashion.
There is much hope vested in Irekia, the regional government’s open government portal that not only provides information about the government activities, but also invites participation from citizens. But while a structure for open data and transparency are excellent ways forward, a complete and balanced model calls for people at the end of the structure, for grassroots initiatives, civic hackers, data with a conscience, staples that have raised the profile of sophisticated cities in Europe.
Bilbao Data Lab, inspired by MIT Centre for Civic Media, was founded last year by Pablo Rey and goes some distance to get together once a month to create a community of people interested in the culture of data, its visualization and analysis, encouraging the use of practices and tools. Participants come from various disciplines, such as journalism, science, economics, programming, marketing, mathematics, engineering and sociology.
The pipeline is also being filled by a Maker Lab and flea market every Friday and Sunday at Espacio Open, a community space on the site of a derelict cookie factory in the Zorrotzaurre peninsula. Among the activities attracting high-tech and low-tech makers here are a digital fabrication lab, woodworking, circus school, a bicycle repair workshop, a skate school and rock climbing facility.
In late October, the Espacio will erupt into the 5th annual Maker Faire which attracts makers from all over Europe and has inspired hundreds of young Bilbaons to turn to careers in using their hands and creative thinking.
The associations of a flea market however, raises the hackles of councillors of a city that has struggled hard over 30 years to polish its image, notwithstanding the fact that 300 to 600 tonnes of goods are being recycled per year and 1500 people congregate for the ‘vibe’ every Sunday at the flea market. Going by the Zaha Hadid masterplan, therefore, the wrecker’s ball hangs over the characterful cookie factory, though the iconic brick chimney may remain as a vestige of industrial heritage.
While the mainstream press fêtes the city as a “worldwide arts hub,” resident artists and entrepreneurs voice a different viewpoint. “The Abandoibarra is about seeing arts, we are about making art,” says an administrator at Bilbao Arte, a residency which attracts international artists of high calibre.
Legitimising spaces like Espacio Open is a matter of irrigating the creative tissue of the city, says its founder, former journalist, Karim Asry, who feels strongly about renegotiating the line of commons. “The truthful conversation we need to have is whether we need a public institution for every new phenomenon or if we should allow the grassroots to fill the vacuum by fostering independent spaces which create economic and social value embodying social inclusion, less resources, more efficiency, more flexibility to adapt, more manoeuvrability.”
Asry bemoans the fact that a huge amount of resources (€9 million at last count) being expended in demolishing to make way for new building projects. A fraction of that could be spent in empowering a third space: a social and cultural accelerator. “Save one building as a catalyser for grassroots projects,” he would advise decision-makers.
Indeed, the Basque region has a history of cooperativism and horizontalism, as epitomised by Mondragon. The federation of worker cooperatives emerged from a local technical college founded by a Catholic priest in 1941, and has created more than 80,000 jobs in the region, even as it opens up international facilities in distant Pune, India. Instead of programming everything from City Hall, there is merit in the idea of encouraging bottom-up and communal responses to urban problems. “Digital transformation needs to have a social inclusion perspective, because that is rooted in the DNA of the city,” says Asry.