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In the second half of the eighteenth century, in Britain, the so-called “Industrial Revolution” began to be recorded. As a result of this global event, industry replaces agriculture as the economic livelihood of countries, thus generating a great change in the social and urban fabric of these, driving society towards the great cities. 

The town of Bilbao notices this change in trend at the end of the nineteenth century, where the mining of the surrounding iron, trade and port activity, generate an unprecedented development in the village. 

This development focuses mainly on economic and urban expansion, transforming Bilbao and its environment in a radical way. In the urban area buildings of high architectural value are built, such as the Arriaga theater and the first widening project of the city is carried out. 

The fundamental economic engine of the village are the industries on the left bank of the river. These are dedicated, both to the steel sector and to the construction of ships, among which stands out mainly “Astilleros Euskalduna”, which was founded in 1900. In this way, the area that is located on the margins of the river of Bilbao, becomes a totally industrial area.

This situation takes a radical turn at the end of the twentieth century, when there is a major crisis in the steel sector, which leads, among others, to the closure of the facilities of the aforementioned “Astilleros Euskalduna” in 1988.

It is estimated that more than 81,000 jobs were lost in the Basque Country, an unemployment of about 30% in the metropolitan area of Bilbao and the dilapidated state of the surrounding area.

Therefore, the city was forced to carry out an industrial conversion plan, in order to reboot economic activity and appease the social crisis. In this situation, at the gates of the 21st century, Bilbao is committed to transforming an industrial society into a city of quality services.

One of the fundamental pillars to carry out this transformation was the urban regeneration of the area around the river. In this context, the company “Bilbao Ría 2000” appeared in 1992, with the aim of recovering degraded areas or declining industrial areas of metropolitan Bilbao. The seed of this society was put in the General Plan of Urban Planning, which began to be drafted in 1991 by the town hall.

After an investment of about 1.1 billion euros over 16 years, the company carries out different actions in order to meet its objective. It is worth mentioning that this company has not directly used public funds to obtain such financing, it comes from the sales of the plots that are transferred free of charge by the public institutions and companies that form its board of directors. 

Thus, the environment of the river has ceased to be a grey area, and the riverbank between the Guggenheim museum and the “Palacio Euskalduna”, has gone from being an area of shipyards and large container storage areas to a renovated floor on which parks have been built and the library of the University of Deusto, the auditorium of the UPV, the Zubiarte shopping center and the Iberdrola tower, among others have been built. 

Photo 1. Abandoibarra, before and after the works of Bilbao Ría 2000. (Source: )

In the environment of the river, it was not easy to manage the new land use, as the occupation of the land was very heterogeneous. Specifically there were roads, railway lines, ports, docks etc.

That is why there had to be a very important consensus between the Bilbao city council, the Basque government and the state government. In fact, Josep Borrell, at that time, in charge of the Ministry of Public Works and Urbanism of the Government of Spain, equates the body that was created to carry out this urban regeneration, with which it was created to manage the Barcelona Olympics of 1992. 

This urban plan in Bilbao, which has been taken as an example at the international level to undertake similar actions, certainly has its positive point in environmental sustainability. The heavy industry surrounding the river of Bilbao has given rise to a clean area, drastically reducing the level of polluting emissions into the atmosphere and thanks to which, the aquatic ecosystem of the river has come back to life.

In terms of social sustainability, there is a counterpoint, since, on the one hand, the quality of life of the inhabitants of the village has been improved, providing them with a pleasant space with numerous services, but in turn the levels of employment of the industrial era have not been recovered and has produced a tertiarization of an eminently industrial economy, with the consequent generation of precariousness and low wages.

Finally, speaking of economic sustainability, it is clearly the most unfavorable point of this urban regeneration, since the level of employment and wealth generation provided by the companies located in this area, is practically impossible to match.

Even so, the closure of these companies is not a decision taken by the urban plan: it is a consequence of the needs and limitations of the market of that historic moment. Therefore, in view of the unworkability of their continuity, I believe that the commitment made to boost services and tourism is correct, breaking the tourist record in 2019, with more than 1 million visits to the village.


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