Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Entrepreneurial Urban Regeneration of Bilbao

In the last fifteen years, Bilbao (Fig. 1) has changed its image from an old city in decline to be considered “la nouvelle Mecque de l’urbanisme” (Masboungi, 2001) with the Guggenheim museum as the most conspicuous flagship (González Ceballos, 2004).

Fig. 1. Satellite image of the city of Bilbao.

Nevertheless, the process recently developed in the Basque city is not original neither innovative. Actually, Bilbao is just one more in a large list of cities which followed the regeneration model of some North American and British metropolis such as Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Glasgow or Birmingham (Rodríguez et al., 2006). According to Rodríguez et al. (2001, p. 167), the strategies used by Bilbao are framed within the New Urban Politics (Cox, 1993), “a view that subordinates urban government strategies to the imperatives of globalized capital accumulation”. The authors go on to argue that this new form of urban governance is based on two main components. First, in the last three decades, there has been an inter-city competition to attract international investment and to promote themselves (Begg, 1999). Secondly, the new urban governance system is grounded in the entrepreneurial government of Harvey (1989). On the one hand, the entrepreneurialism performed in these urban areas is centered in the speculative notion of quangos (public-private partnerships) and, on the other hand, it is also more focused on the political economy of the city rather than of territory.

Further, it is very difficult to separate the urban restructuring of Bilbao with the territory identity and nationalism issues concerning the Basque Country. In this sense, it has been said that some European cities have experienced identity crisis in its cultures and among its citizens (Castells, 1994). In the case of Bilbao, the spotlight has been in the establishment of the Guggenheim Museum and the role played by the PNV (the Partido Nacionalista Vasco) in this process (McNeill, 2000).
The purpose of the present work is to assess the entrepreneurial practices performed in the urban renewal of Bilbao. In this first section, I will describe how the capital of Biscay has followed almost the same path which Glasgow undertook. Finally, in the second part of the essay, I will focus on the process of globalization suffered in the city, from the decision of becoming a global city at the very beginning, to the lights and shadows of its consequences.

Following the example of Glasgow
Bilbao and Glasgow show a large amount of geographical and historical similarities. Before undertaking a deeply process of entrepreneurial regeneration, they were European peripheral and nationalist cities under a dramatic dynamics of deindustrialization and urban decline (population decrease, loss of employment, poor image, etc.) (Gómez, 1998). It is also known that during the first phase of the project, experts from Bilbao went to visit the British city in order to learn from their regeneration experiences (González Ceballos, 2004). In consequence, during the 1990s Bilbao accomplished almost the same urban strategies that the Scottish city implemented one decade before.
These entrepreneurial practices were based on two key elements. First, the focus was on changing their old and grey image into a new global one (Paddison, 1993; Gómez, 1998). In order to achieve this goal, the cities developed transformations of their built environment and used aggressive place-marketing campaigns (Vicario and Martínez, 2003). In the first case, on the one hand, centric “opportunity sites” were strategically chosen to allocate emblematic projects (Fig. 2), and, on the other hand, transport, cultural and new trade and conference infrastructures were constructed to stand out as symbols of modernity and renewal (Boyle and Hughes, 1994; Rodríguez and Martínez, 2001). In addition to the physical environment improvements, place-marketing campaigns were carried out. A good example of this is the different slogans used in Glasgow such as ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ or ‘There’s Glasgowing on’ (Paddison, 1993; Boyle and Hughes, 1994). Another common entrepreneurial strategy consisted in assigning most of projects to “signature” architects. In the case of Bilbao, architects like Frank Ghery, Sir Norman Foster, Cesar Pelli or Arata Isozaki designed the major projects undertaken in the city (Vicario and Martínez, 2003).

Fig. 2. Picture of the city of Bilbao. In the foreground, it can be observed one of the main emblematic projects, Abandoibarra. On the left side of the picture, it can be distinguished the figure of the Guggenheim Museum and, on the right side, the Euskalduna Conference Centre and Concert Hall.
Second, the final consolidation of the shift from managerialism to entrepreneurialism (Harvey, 1989) was the formation of quangos or public and private partnerships. These new agencies acted as a private corporation but uses civic resources, thus promoting the efficiency, flexibility and proactivity (Rodríguez et al. 2001). In the case of Glasgow, the hosting of the City of Culture of 1990 operated as a trigger for creating Glasgow Action in the first place, and Glasgow Development Agency, in the second (Boyle and Hughes, 1994). Similarly, the Spanish post-1992 hangover was the catalyst which mainly provoked the constitution of Bilbao Metrópoli 30 (BM30) and Bilbao Ría 2000 (Gómez, 1998). While the first ones (Glasgow Action and BM30) were the quasi-public agencies whose objectives were based on planning and projecting the new city image. In contrast, the seconds (Glasgow Development Agency and Bilbao Ría 2000) were the ones to develop the major projects of the regeneration scheme (Gómez, 1998; Rodríguez and Martínez, 2001). Specifically, Bilbao Ría 2000 was responsible for the redevelopment of Abandoibarra following a self-financed system through various land valorization mechanisms (Rodríguez et al. 2001). Abandoibarra was initially designed to become a command and control center, but now it is considered a consumption space for the urban elite (Rodríguez et al., 2001).
It is important to highlight that the true legacies of the resulting entrepreneurial landscape may have ambivalent interpretations. Although the images of Glasgow and Bilbao have really changed and they are international considered as cultural and creative cities, the privatization of urban planning has brought a downtown bias, thus accentuating social exclusion and polarization (Rodríguez and Martínez, 2001). Perhaps the best way to summarize this is quoting this Bilbao’s real-estate advertising found in one of its main streets: “Many will see it from the outside … Only a few will enjoy it from the inside” (Vicario and Martínez, 2003).

The Basque paths of Globalization
It has been argued that Bilbao has continuously suffered a historical dynamics of globalization and de-globalization (del Cerro Santamaría, 2005). However, in this section, the only focus of importance is the last attempt of Bilbao to become a global city. In this context, a global city is understood as a place where highly specialized services and financial goods are produced (Sassen, 2001). Therefore, the globalization process is defined as the integration of urban systems within the new flows of the global economy (Castells, 1994). Although there is an important controversy whether Bilbao has become or not a global city (McNeill, 2000; Rodríguez et al., 2001). According to the last list of the Globalization and World Cities network research (Taylor et al., 2009), Bilbao is situated as one of the new emergent world cities (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Geography of all major control and command centres. The black arrow points to the location of Bilbao (modified from Taylor et al., 2009).
As I mentioned above, 1992 was a date full of meaning for the Basque authorities. However, this year is considered the annus mirabilis for the Spanish culture (McNeill, 2000). Spain opened to the world through a series of international events: Barcelona held the Olympic Games, Seville a World Expo and Madrid the European City of Culture title. However, no Basque city participated in these celebrations albeit it was clear that “the Basque elite was both desirous to be excluded from any association with a ‘New Spain’, but was equally keen to retain its political strength relative to other Spanish regions” (McNeill, 2000). The PNV’s solution to this dilemma was the establishment of a Guggenheim museum in the city of Bilbao. According to McNeill (2000, p. 487):
The Guggenheim offered a Basque-controlled flagship which advertised Basque difference (and financial autonomy) to the world, yet which represented Euzkadi [the name of the Basque Country in Euskera] not as a primordial backwater [terrorism, deindustrialization] but as a society at ease with global modernity. [my emphasis]
This achievement was carried out by the PNV’s leaders in completely secrecy, thereby raising questions about its democratic nature (González Ceballos, 2004).
Since the opening of the Frank Ghery’s museum in 1997, there has been a significantly increase of tourists visiting the Basque city (Plaza, 1999). However, the role of the museum in attracting other kind of flows is unclear (Gómez and González, 2001). In addition, once the so-called “Guggenheim effect” has vanished, the Basque authorities of the city of Bilbao will have to ask again whether they want to invest in their own or in foreign culture.

An assessment of the entrepreneurial practices carried out in the city of Bilbao raises two major issues. First, the resulting urban landscape has strengthened the socio-spatial fragmentation of the city. Following the path of Glasgow, the downtown bias and the subordination of the planning to the private-public partnerships have promoted new speculative and exclusive spaces (e.g. Abandoibarra), whilst the rest of the urban fabric has been forgotten.
Secondly, the globalization of Basque Country region, especially thanks to the endowment of the Guggenheim museum within Bilbao, hides two main interpretations. It is paradoxical that the way Basque’s elite have globalized Bilbao has been through an international figure instead of investing in their own culture. The other key element is concerning the evident undemocratic spirit of the decisions taken by the PNV’s leaders which points out the authoritative nature of the process. Further, once the “Guggenheim effect” will have disappeared, Bilbao citizens will start to ask whether feeding the downtown monster was worth.

Ramiro Aznar Ballarin
MSc Urban Sustainability (University of Reading)
Urban Governance and Planning report

Click here to download the references.

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