Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Valencia and the Bilbao Effect

This NYT article on the massive debt run up by the Regional government including the city of Valencia is largely spot on.  Since it came across the Pro-Urb list-serv I had to add the following to the discussion:

It's funny to look back on glowing articles about the supposed Bilbao effect from back when times were good and we were drunk on hallucinated wealth and housing bubbles:

However, like many of you, I was always intuitively skeptical of its impact.  Having done a good bit of research into Bilbao's process, I now have a few slides in some of the presentations I've been giving around Dallas debunking this misconception (considering our similar misplaced fascination on shiny objects).  Here is a brief summation I wrote explaining it within the context of systems thinking:
People can see Gehry's building. They can point to it. They can touch it. But it was the least influential in Bilbao's recent renaissance than anything else substantial that the city undertook. First, they repurposed. A coal/shipping town repurposed as globalization moved industrial jobs elsewhere. They focused on empowering the arts (they had a lot of people out of work, bored, and tinkering). 
Because the city is an archipelago of sub-hierarchies, loosely connected, they needed to reintegrate their city's networks. They built an entirely new subway system. They expanded their port as well as their airport. They integrated these various local and global infrastructures of interconnection. All of this began 10 years before the Guggenheim, which was a mere cherry on top.
In other words, the Guggenheim was an effect more than it was a cause, a manifestation and celebration of the hard work to repurpose and revitalize the city.  The added value the Guggenheim did provide, and necessary in many ways, was widespread awareness.  It is essentially a marketing gesture, which is a form of interconnection and integration itself.

As for Valencia, I spent a week there last year and a good amount of time during that span getting to know locals and ex-pats, hearing their thoughts, particularly regarding the Cidade des Artes y Ciencias.  It's funny, even in the article linked below, it frames the larger Turia Gardens, set within the old river bed, as if it was conceived by Calatrava.  The resentment towards the expensive buildings was universal.  Unsurprisingly, when visiting them in person, it's a rather soulless experience.  The novelty of the alien space ship had landed and we long ago gave up trying to figure out its intricate inner workings.  On the other hand, the rest of the park, the soccer fields, the bike paths, the trails, were well-utilized despite the slight disconnect being 10 or so meters below grade.