The real Bilbao Effect is based on planning vision and complex relationships between levels of government + funding and implementation
The newest piece in the series of culture-based revitalization efforts has been posted on the Europe in Baltimore site, on Bilbao, "The Bilbao Effect’s secret ingredients: planning, relationships, funding, implementation."
Before I started seriously researching for the piece, I had only a glib understanding of the revitalization program there, thinking wrongly, like many that it was solely about the creation of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, as a way to attract tourists and rebrand the city, to redevelop post-industrially after the city's mass production factories and shipyards had shut down, forcing tens of thousands of people out of work.
Yes, the Museum was a catalyst for the revitalization program, but more importantly the city had a deep and wide plan for revitalization--strategic plans for the city and region were created beginning in 1987--and had already committed to building a subway system, and incorporated this element into the plans.
The idea of a museum such as the Guggenheim, let alone getting a building of startling design that was more like sculpture, wasn't even in the original plan, although one of the four thrusts of the planning initiatives is culture-related revitalization.
Left: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry.
The cost of building the museum and buying art was paid back in 5 years, from increased tourism and the resulting local economic impact. And the museum is still highly visited, and was the 60th most visited museum in the world in 2012 according to The Art Newspaper.
Funding... Bilbao is the provincial capital of the Biscay Province of the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country (BAC), a semi-autonomous region of Spain. The Basque region has been given financial autonomy by the Spanish government, so the local provinces collect national income taxes, giving a small tranche to the national government, and keeping the rest for the Basque government, provincial governments, and the municipalities.
This meant that, if all the levels of government agreed to "the program," that Bilbao would have access to funding at levels far beyond that typically available to a city of its size.
Although I have to say I don't understand why it is so much less expensive there to build spectacular buildings, transit systems, and other infrastructure, which makes a big difference in being able to do much more, but for less money.
But it wasn't just funding, it was also the creation of able implementing organizations, in particular BilbaoRia2000, to make the program happen.
So, while most casual observers believe that the Bilbao Effect is a building, the reality is that the Bilbao Effect is a "Program" consisting of plans + intergovernmental relationships and commitments + funding + implementation.
Transit. The creation of a new transit system there is an equally compelling and noteworthy story. Bilbao is a relatively small region, 1 million in population, to have a subway system. But spatial constraints posed by the mountains and rivers made an underground transit solution the most logical, but expensive, choice. They now have a growing subway system with three lines, and not quite 60 stations with over 30 miles of trackage.
Indauxtu Square is a reformulated square with public gathering elements. Underneath a parking structure was constructed and the Metro serves the square. In addition many of the roads around the square were pedestrianized.
At the same time, the Metro system was used to force an integration of the transit modes in terms of fares and coordination, even though the various modes are run by different agencies and may be contracted to various operators, as well as a fulcrum for urban design and public space improvements at the surface.
The line has since been extended, and additional lines are now being constructed elsewhere in the metropolitan area.
Contrast this to DC, which has taken 12 years to get a streetcar program operational. Considering all the ridiculous opposition to streetcars in DC, check out the photos in this blog entry, "Bilbao Straßenbahn und U-Bahn" (images of the tram from this entry).
Although one author makes the point that because CAF, a major manufacturer of transit vehicles (they constructed cars for the WMATA subway system here in DC), is based in the Basque Country, building transit systems in the region is a form of subsidy of local industry.
Although how is that any different than an Oregonian Congressman getting funding for the Oregon Iron Works to build streetcars in the US?
Criticism. Because of the Gehry-designed museum, academics have directed a lot of attention to Bilbao's revitalization program.
Even if I don't agree with the thrust of some of the analysis, it provides a depth of critical analysis rarely enjoyed by a community of Bilbao's size and it raises some interesting arguments. Many of the articles are archived on the Scholars on Bilbao website.
Of course, academic analysis is rarely drawn on by elected and appointed officials in government.
Comparable to the other articles I've written in this series on Temple Bar in Dublin, Hamburg, Vienna's Social Housing program, Helsinki, etc., I feel like I've just scratched the surface in what I want to learn from these places.
Speaking of architecture. And Bilbao has convinced me that distinctive but discordant modern architecture can be incorporated as a kind of public art and sculpture juxtaposed with a critical mass of heritage architecture, without diminishing it.