Case study 01

Rejuvenation of Abandoibarra Waterfront, Bilbao, Spain

This urban regeneration project that spanned some 14 years saw the dramatic transformation of a dilapidated industrial area in the city centre of Bilbao, Spain into an exciting new mixed-use district anchored by the world-renowned Guggenheim Museum.

In brief | Key issues | Leadership and governance | Creativity and innovation | Impacts | Replicability

Rejuvenation of Abandoibarra Waterfront




Urban Regeneration

Waterfront Redevelopment


Fully Completed

Partially Completed

1998 – 2012 (14 years)


34.85 hectares





In brief

Abandoibarra Map
Map showing the outline of the Abandoibarra district. © Bilbao City Hall

  • The Abandoibarra district is a redevelopment of an obsolete and run-down port area adjacent to the River Nervion.
  • The relocation of the port from the city centre opened up the waterfront as a key area of transformation.
  • The recuperation of the river is accompanied by a series of landmark infrastructures, such as the Guggenheim Museum, Euskalduna Conference and Concert Hall, a maritime museum, 600 luxury housing units, offices, shopping and leisure centre, shops, university facilities, hotels and green areas including a 3 kilometres pedestrian promenade.
  • The project brought about the transition of Bilbao from an industrial city to a city of services and culture.

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Key issues faced before the implementation of the project

Abandoibarra Before
Abandoibarra before the transformation © Bilbao City Hall

  • Decline of mining, steel and shipbuilding industries, which conditioned the urban structure along the river.
  • Rising unemployment of about 22.5% in the 1970s and 1980s, due to deindustrialisation and disinvestment both from abroad and other parts of Spain.
  • Negative environmental impact on the river from industries and port activities.

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Leadership and governance

Land ownership

Land ownership of Abandoibarra © Bilbao City Hall

  • Abandoibarra was highlighted in the first General Urban Plan by Bilbao Town Hall in 1987, as the most representative ‘opportunity site’ left out by deindustrialisation and economic decline that could be redeveloped to lead the process of urban revitalisation.
  • Its operation inaugurates the shift from urban government to governance. The new mode of urban governance involves the transfer of planning and implementation powers traditionally held by local institutions to a new managing institution, Bilbao Ria 2000.
  • Bilbao Ria 2000 is a non-profitmaking entity owned equally by Basque Administration and the State Administration. It coordinates and executes projects in relation to town planning, transportation and the environment, with the intention of recovering former industrial space around the city.
  • Bilbao Ria 2000’s shareholders, which are all public companies or institutions, transfer land belonging to them in central areas of Bilbao and Barakaldo, and the Town Halls upgrade the land. Bilbao Ria 2000 invests in building works on the land and sells off the resultant plots to finance its activities.
  • A multi-package approach was adopted in the delivery of the project. Instead of leasing the land to one private developer for integrated development, it has been divided into smaller land parcels for leasing in phases to different developers for developments.

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Creativity and Innovation

Pedro Arrupe Walkway
Pedro Arrupe Walkway © Bilbao City Hall

  • Abandoibarra demonstrated that the use of culture, internationalisation and design excellence as key catalysts have enabled the successful regeneration of the city. Through constant re-invention and evolvement, the city progressed from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy.
  • Bilbao Guggenheim Museum – the symbol of transformation. It played an outstanding role as a driving force for shifting Bilbao’s personality towards a more cosmopolitan character with a closer relationship to contemporary culture.
  • Euskalduna Palace Conference and Music Centre – the second building built in the area after Guggenheim Museum. It was designed in weathering steel as a symbol of the last vessel built in the old Euskalduna shipyard, which had occupied the space for decades.
  • Avenida de Abandoibarra – a major avenue and backbone of the area. The carriageways are separated by a 12-metre wide, tree-lined and grassed central reservation on which the tram runs.
  • Bank Park – a facility to connect existing promenades along 800 metres of the waterfront. The city reclaimed almost 6 kilometres of leisure space on both sides of the river. The park features the collection of sculptures, a kind of ‘Memory Lane’ to commemorate the intense industrial activity which used to be the main feature on site.
  • Auskalduna Bridge, Zubizuri Footbridge and Pedro Arrupe Walkway – bridges and walkway that foster communications between both sides of the river. They are physical infrastructures for social interaction, as well as sculptures that strengthen the image of innovation and modernity.

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Impacts of the project





Average of 1 million visitors per year at Guggenheim Museum

Airport passengers increased from 1.4 million to 3.8 million between 1994 and 2005

10.9% increase in jobs provided by Guggenheim Museum between 1997 and 2006

10 times increase in the number of conference delegates to 178,000 per year

  • The Bilbao effect or Guggenheim effect – it is not just about achieving urban transformation, economic and social vibrancy through a few iconic buildings. Rather, it is about a strong leadership and a commitment to a systematic and long term plan, based on solid processes and supporting infrastructure.
  • Strong boost for tourist sector since the inauguration of Guggenheim Museum in 1997, attracting an average of 1 million visitors per year since its opening.
  • Airport passengers increased from 1.4 million in 1994 to 3.8 million in 2005.
  • Guggenheim Museum has maintained 3,816 jobs during the first year, and increased to 4,232 jobs (or 10.9% increase) in the year 2006.
  • The urban regeneration attracts private sector investment. The large energy company Iberdrola has decided to build its new headquarter on the site. The Iberdrola Tower has become the new financial and business icon of Bilbao.
  • The number of conference delegates arriving in the city increased tenfold to 178,000 per year.

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Replicable ideas

Abandoibarra Bilbao
Abandoibarra after the transformation © Bilbao City Hall

  • A city can be regenerated through the use of culture, internationalisation and design excellence.
  • The vision should not only focus on economic growth, but also look at the social and quality of life considerations.
  • Abandoibarra serves as a reference in terms of strategic vision and good governance. It constitutes an inspirational source for other cities with underprivileged areas of great potential.

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Information is correct as of August 2019. All images contained within this page are used with license/ permission and shall not be copied, modified, or reproduced. Icons made by Freepik from