Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

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.

Bilbao seized an opportunity.  The Guggenheim Foundation was creating museums across the globe, and negotiations in other European cities had bogged down, so in 1991 they approached the Guggenheim with a fully funded proposal.

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.

After the Guggenheim Museum opened, they realized that tram service would be a good complement to the Metro in simplifying visitation to the Museum and other destinations along the river, so in 4 years from commitment and planning to construction and operation, opening in 2002, they built a tram line between Metro stations, and serving the Museum.

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).

It's enough to make you want to cry, thinking about the missed opportunities in Washington, DC.  Some capital city...

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?  

On the other hand, one student who was studying there a few years ago marveled about how it is possible to live in the Bilbao Metro area without a car, because of the existence of a (now) well-integrated multi-modal transit system. 

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.

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At 8:30 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Richard, Merry Christmas if you celebrate.

Great post as usual.

Couple of other points:

1. Spain is pretty much the leading example in the world of debt driven development. Basque region is a bit better than most, but still on levels that would make any american boggle. (Chicago, detroit, and PR)

2. Corruption -- also alive and well in Spain. Again less in the basque country but it still a reality.

3. Cars. Spainish people love their cars. But there is a reason they don't bring them to Bilbao -- any car that doesn't have a basque tag will be vandalized or tagged.

At 9:37 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Given that Christmas is practically a secular event, yes, we celebrate. Back atcha!

2. True about the debt issue. But also interesting that creating such buildings as infrastructure costs so much less than here. E.g., creating a museum like the Guggenheim and outfitting it with art for about $230MM?

3. The last piece in the series (I still have three more city-based pieces first) is a sum up, and I am close to being able to write it up.

WRT your point about corruption etc., one point is that yes, Europe still has mendaciousness and self-serving politicians, etc., but at the same time, in large part because of the EU and its agencies and initiatives, there is an incredibly amount of collaborative "competition" in terms of achieving way better outcomes on a more consistent basis.

(And speaking of debt and foolishness, I didn't write about some of the other failing projects in Spain, like that airport that was built and just sold, or the City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela. So there is still a lot of necessary learning to be had, even there...)

I just don't feel that we have similar kinds of structures and processes here, debt notwithstanding.

e.g., the EU Capital of Culture, Green City, Science City designation programs alone are pretty incredible.

Then you have the Intl. Building Exhibition and the Intl. Garden Show in Germany. And now the UK has adopted a form of the Cultural Capital program to operate within the UK.

Agenda21, OpenCities, and other programs too.

It's quite remarkable.

4. Relatedly, DC is doing a new central library, but we have no plan. We're selecting architects, without a real master plan for the library or the library system. Contrast that to the process in Helsinki...

5. Or the way that in way more instances, social programming and infrastructure concerning equity is integrated into the various projects. Yes, the academics still complain about "uneven development," but the contrast to comparable projects in the US is striking.

At 4:35 PM, Anonymous retail design said...

Very informative post!

At 7:18 PM, Blogger AboutBC said...

Regards from the Basque Country

At 8:23 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

It is really worthy to study european cities and try and discern the differences in planning and execution. The other factors can through you off; and yes, you picked a better choice than other spanish cities.

But the cajas -- and financing -- were huge differences.

Did you get down to Georgetown to see the light festival? As I've said before the quality of public art in European cities is usually off the charts better than US cities -- and it wasn't always the case (think 60s and 70s). I just don't think out hybrid model in DC can really produce much worth looking at. BIDs, however, do a good job with flowers?

Likewise I'm sure there are EU resources on city building being targets at Ukraine, Lithuania, etc on the eastern edge.

We've argued about this before, but so much is just a class problem -- we get decent (not great) public facilities in places with middle class people -- Reston is pretty darn clean -- and a lack of investment where poor people live.

At 11:31 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I would have gotten into cajas I think, if the piece was about nations more than cities. And while I am allowed free rein on the articles, they are commissioned by the EU Nat. Institutes of Culture's Washington cluster, so I am not looking to be a terror. (E.g., in the piece on Helsinki I didn't really discuss the decline of the Nokia handset business as an indicator of "whatever".)

The cajas and Spain of "today" aren't a whole lot different than the US in the 1980s and the savings and loan financing explosion and then the crash. E.g., for a brief time I lived at 15th and D SE in 1990/1991 and a new 4? bay strip of shops was built there. Remember that this was DC in 1991. And similarly, the little shopping center on Brentwood where DMV had an office for awhile.

No way that those would have been built in a regime of sound underwriting and constraints on access to capital.

Anyway, the point of these pieces isn't to write about everything going on in the EU. But of course I do come across other initiatives. And you are right that there is a lot going on elsewhere, and eastward. They are focusing on such efforts to work at reducing outmigration to the west. But really really interesting stuff.

2. I did miss the Lumiere festival in Georgetown and I am into that kind of stuff. Not a surprise that it wasn't all that because of what you said.

I still need to print out and read the Georgetown BID planning vision report...

However, since seeing the program in Cleveland in 2002, where they have a program that lights the steeples of churches, I have been very much into architectural lighting. In fact, I am trying to pull together a proposal to test this with Metro canopies, but I have been very remiss (actually was dealt a big blow when the Barracks Row Main St. went ahead to do planning at the Eastern Market Metro independent of another project I was working with--architectural lighting of the canopy was going to be one element). An internationally recognized firm, based in Brooklyn, is interested in working with me on it. I figure that Metro canopies could be a way of boosting neighborhood public art, but also transit and placemaking more generally.

At 11:36 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

The other thing though about what you said has its roots in the difference between Europe and the US in terms of the attitude toward govt., social infrastructure, the role of govt., equity, etc.

So we are much more grim, at least since urban renewal days.

But of course I have been ruminating on the differences that emanate from these markedly different approaches.

The neoliberal thing, a good example is what is going on with the MLK Library, more about that later probably, although now I am involved in some of the discussion about directions, and so I can't really write about it.

I just can't see a major European city wanting to expand a library footprint with non-cultural at-market rate rental space having no connection to culture functions that would be relevant to a library.

At 5:52 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

The caja situation was a bit worse than the S&L; imagine the growth machine AND you local elecred on the board of a local (large) S&L. But you are quite correct somewhat tangential to the point about planning.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the differences between the two approaches. I have a weakness for bad british thriller fiction from the 70s, and it strikes me as a very similar attitude in the cities. Something changed though, and I do suspect the EU had a large part to play.

That being said, ever european city I've been too (well, maybe not Malmo) is a lot grimer and dirtier than any city in the US because of the diesel pollution. Thank god for small favors.

At 2:44 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I don't know if caja funding has been integral to the Santiago de Compestela project, but that has definitely involved creating a monument to the leading politicians there. And when building is about that, eg cf the Government Mall in Albany, NY, the ability to connect and improve the existing fabric and place at a fine grained level is usually lost/out of the question.

At 11:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We really liked your post about our city. So let's share the article via our social networks!

At 2:52 PM, Blogger icalzada said...

Agree with the idea of complexity. Anyway, Temple Bar and Dublin case and the rest you mentioned are very different from Bilbao. What you may be interested is also in the problems that Bilbao has been facing that you do no mention. And also the hinterland that I published in a Book. Thanks good contribution though
Dr Calzada (Oxford <> St Sebastian)

At 2:57 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

citations welcome! Thank you for your comments.

How about a listing of the stuff that I missed? (Not as a challenge but because I want to learn.)

I did find this:


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