May 09, 2023

Bilbao: a City Committed to Sustainable Development at All Levels

From a gritty industrial city to a walkable space where sustainability is top of mind, Bilbao is now a city committed to sustainable development at all levels.

Bilbao has undergone a profound transformation since the end of the 20th century.  A city once known for its grimy steel mills, it has become famous for its museums, parks, extensive spaces exclusively for pedestrian traffic and its sustainability initiatives. A local journalist calls this transformation “from soot to titanium”.

Located on both banks of the Nervión river, the city is surrounded by steep hills.  The downtown area near the river is therefore compact, making it eminently walkable.  In fact, most people here prefer walking to driving, making it easy to peruse the shops, cafés and restaurants along the way.

Bilbao sustainable city

Bilbao is surrounded by the Basque Mountains and sits on an estuary that leads to the Atlantic Ocean. Photo: Canva

The demise of the region’s steel mills provided a great reason for the city fathers to create open spaces for parks and museums like the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum) near the banks of the Nervión.  Several graceful bridges link both sides of the river.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has been at the forefront of environmental responsibility for the past twenty years. In 2004, it was certified for ISO 14001. Since then, sustainability has been a key concern in the Museum’s Strategic Plan.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is the first museum in the international sphere to certify its carbon footprint including indirect emissions.

In 2021, the Museum set out an Environmental Sustainability Strategic Framework in line with the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in the United Nations General Assembly resolution known as the 2030 Agenda. This laid the foundation for the development of the first Sustainability Action Plan in 2022.


The city fathers, private enterprise and citizens are committed to sustainability

Bilbao ranks high in sustainability indexes.  In the 2023 Smart Cities Index compiled by the IMD (International Institute for Management Development) Bilbao was #27 out of 141 cities worldwide. 

In the SCI, the city received very high ratings for its public transport, green spaces, cultural activities, access to good schools, and lifelong learning opportunities for its residents.

 In its 2019 study of urban mobility, Greenpeace Spain ranked Bilbao in first place among Spanish cities. 


Take the bus, a tram, or the subway but if you drive, drive slowly

Bilbao has lowered the speed limit for vehicular traffic from 50 km/h to 30 km/h within the city limits. Trams, city buses and the subway now run on hybrid or electric energy. The entire old town and other parts of the city have been turned into pedestrian-only areas and an extensive network of bike paths crisscrosses the city.  These measures, along with communications and public awareness campaigns earned Bilbao the 2021 Urban Road Safety award from the European Commission.

Alfonso Gil, deputy mayor and city councilor for Mobility and Sustainability in the Bilbao City Hall says, “our air quality is better and consequently with lower pollution, less smoke, less noise.  We have reduced noise in the city by two to three decibels.  And fewer accidents.”

Bilbao sustainable pedestrian areas

The entire old town and other parts of Bilbao have been turned into pedestrian-only areas. Photo: Canva


Past accomplishments and continuing efforts to reach sustainable development

Among Bilbao’s past accomplishments are a ‘Smart City’ and an ‘Education Cluster’ award in the 2016 ‘fDI Strategy Awards’ by the Financial Times Group.

In addition, the Bilbao City Hall was Spain’s first public entity to obtain the Certificate of Conformity with UNE Norm 178301 for Smart Cities and Open data.

Each year, the city sponsors the “Premios SOStenibilidad” honoring organizations and individuals that share the objectives of sustainable development and initiatives to reach a sustainable ecological transition.

The city continues to pursue its sustainability goals. It recently released “Sustainable Bilbao: Agenda 2030 and SDO” (Sustainable Development Objectives).  The purpose of the study is to locate objectives currently carried out by public and private entities within the United Nations Agenda 2030.

A less known but extremely practical manifestation of Bilbao’s pursuit of sustainablility is INGURUBIDE (‘environment’ in Basque), the Bilbao Sustainable Resource Center.  It is a permanent exhibition where individuals and companies wishing to reform their offices, apartments or houses can see sustainable solutions.  The center also offers training sessions and seminars about sustainable building practices.

Text by Tom Perry, Inside Rioja

Learn more about Bilbao-Rioja Great Wine Capitals