The physical transformation of Bilbao and its urban environment is a complex process resulting from an intense and long-standing work following a plan created by diﬀerent public institutions.
This process sinks its roots in the dynamic and entrepreneurial character that has characterised the people of Bilbao since its foundation in the year 1300, when Don Diego López de Haro, Lord of
Biscay, granted the Carta Puebla at the instance of inﬂuencing noble and bourgeois families who
wanted a series of privileges for transporting goods through the River.
Despite not being located by the sea, Bilbao was born with a decisive port vocation. Throughout its
more than 700 years of history, the link of the city and the metropolitan environment of the River
and industrial, trade, naval and port activities has been constant and has become its main sign of
identity and its most important source of wealth.
Through the centuries, the River has been the key element of the City of Bilbao which originated, as a result of the intensive industrial development of the 19th and early 20th century, the industries
and companies related to port activities ﬁlled the lands that were closest to the course of the River
on both banks and prevented their residential use, while serving as a frontier that closed oﬀ the
banks from the citizens.
The economic growth justiﬁed these limitations. But, at the same time, it prevented an alternative
development, which became essential when, in the ’80s, the industrial crisis resulted in the
reconversion or closure of the large factories located on the River banks. Unemployment in the
metropolitan area exceeded 25% of the population. Changing the productive activity was therefore
In this context of deep and dramatic economic recession, in 1983 the city suﬀered catastrophic
ﬂoods. The toll of this disaster was 30 deceased and signiﬁcant material damages in a city that had
the closest neighbourhoods to the River bank literally underwater.
Bilbao had hit rock bottom and it was important to implement a shock plan to face the future with
hope and recover its lost self-esteem. The citizens of Bilbao understood that they could not be
impassive while watching the unstoppable decline of their Villa and they literally set to work to
clean the tonnes of debris that turned the Casco Viejo (Old Quarter) of Bilbao and other areas into a real heap of rubbish and mud.
From the ﬁrst moment, the leadership of the City of Bilbao and the work of Surbisa (local company
created to manage the rehabilitation of the Casco Viejo) together with the commercial life that
always characterised the Casco Viejo, became essential to revitalise this quarter, the true heart of
The regeneration of the Casco Viejo thus became an example of resilience and the inﬂexion point
from the industrial Bilbao into the “new” Bilbao. The institutions lent a shoulder and started to work
on initiatives to enable the regeneration and promotion of the city.
On the other hand, at the same time there was a huge economic recession and, as a result, some of the best lands of the River banks were now free, the ﬂattest and the closest ones to the banks. On the other hand, moving port activities to the external haven also favoured the liberation of locations on the banks of the Nervion River, which were added to those that were no longer occupied by the great industry.
The challenge was there, and it was urgent to make decisions that allowed the metropolis to make
the most of the opportunity to recover the extraordinary value of these lands as soon and as best
as possible. These lands would have been destined to become industrial ruins, and had an obvious risk of falling in the hands of real estate speculation.
Fortunately, the lands were almost completely owned by companies, public bodies and institutions,
and precisely these public institutions led the foundation of a public company, a limited company, in
which all of these bodies would participate and that served as a useful and agile instrument to
coordinate and execute new projects that the metropolis needed to overcome this crisis.
Having obtained the commitment of the public institutions and entities involved, the company
BILBAO Ría 2000, S.A. was created on 19 November 1992 to ﬁnance its investments thanks to the
authorities’ urban exploitation of the liberated land after the disappearance of the industry that
formerly occupied these areas.
BILBAO Ría 2000 is a public limited company with public capital, created in equal participations by
the Administration of the State, through depending companies (Sepes – Entidad Pública Empresarial de Suelo-, Bilbao Port Authority and Adif), as well as the Basque Administration (Basque Government, Bizkaia Provincial Council and the Cities of Bilbao and Barakaldo).
Its mission was the recovery of degraded or industrial areas in decline of the metropolitan area of
Bilbao. In order to achieve this, it coordinates and executes projects that integrate urban planning,
transport and the environment.
BILBAO Ría 2000 was created with a contribution of 1.8 million Euros and, from that initial amount,
the Company has proven its ability to achieve ﬁnancial balance without dipping into the public
funds of the partners, except for speciﬁc conventions for some works that had not been included in
their action programme.
Their self-ﬁnancing is possible since the shareholders – all of them, we insist, institutions and public
bodies – granted the lands they owned in the central areas of the metropolis and at the same time
the relevant cities modiﬁed the use classiﬁcation of the lands. BILBAO Ría 2000 invests in its
complete cleaning and urbanisation, taking on large-scale projects, and ﬁnally sells the resulting
plots to private promoters.
The eventual added-value that is generated with the sale of land is reinvested in urban actions and
infrastructures, mainly trains, beneﬁcial for the cities and its citizens, which has improved the urban
environment and public transport. It was initially created to develop the urban recovery of Abandoibarra and the change of the route and covering of the RENFE local trains, the success of the company encouraged the partners to request new actions in Bilbao and increase the area of inﬂuence to include the municipality of Barakaldo.
Its best known intervention is the Abandoibarra initiative, a space on the river bank with an area of
35 hectares that unites the Guggenheim Museum and Euskalduna Conference Centre and Concert Hall, two of the architectural and economic icons of the new Bilbao.
An important part of the physical transformation of Bilbao has ended, and the city is moving
towards a new and less tangible transformation, which is also very important. The city no intends to transform it into a smart city in which businesses and advanced economy enable the generation of employment and wealth.
This new transformation will require the use of similar tools to those they have used until now:
– The identiﬁcation of the need that serves as an engine for the mobilisation of resources and
wills that are diﬃcult to achieve in other contexts. In the current situation, the high level of
unemployment can be this “need”.
– The inter-institutional consensus between the agents that are really identiﬁed with this
need. It is more useful to materialise small agreed advances than to try large changes alone.
– Establish a self-supporting mechanism so as to stop the debate regarding who pays for it
and how, which could hinder the collaboration.
The urban regeneration process of Bilbao and the city is a mosaic in which there are numerous
pieces which have clicked into place to create a powerful and harmonious ensemble that has
received a great international recognition.
In regards to the future of the metropolis it is necessary to maintain this spirit of common eﬀort
with a clear combined goal that allows to unite strengths and face the diﬀerent challenges and the
diﬃculties that may arise.