Mayor Aburto: “Bilbao is an international benchmark in urban transformation”

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Mayor of Bilbao Juan Mari Aburto has talked with SmartCitiesWorld on how the city council is building wellbeing metrics into its sustainability and climate action plans for the long term. Here is the whole interview by mayor Aburto.

Q: What wellbeing and liveability objectives is the City of Bilbao focused on at the moment?

A: In Bilbao we are working to advance towards an increasingly better model of society with greater levels of wellbeing, and in which social cohesion, resilience, digital transition, energy, social responsibility and inclusion are fundamental pillars.

Bilbao is an international benchmark in urban transformation, something we are very proud of, but we also want to be a city that sets an example in terms of coexistence and values. In July 2018, the Bilbao Charter of Values was approved in the City Council Plenary.

Bilbao City of Values is an innovative project, aligned with our 2030 agenda and SDGs, which aims to continue with the construction of the city, from a shared framework of values contributed by the whole of society, where values play a strategic role as drivers of more sustainable development across social, environmental and economic factors.

Q: What role does climate action play in achieving these objectives?

A: It is a central element. Bilbao is currently developing specific initiatives, projects and actions in the field of sustainability and the environment, making progress in its process of integral and effective transition towards a more intelligent and sustainable city model, thus laying the solid foundations for responsible development in a future paradigm that is increasingly demanding and committed to the environment.

As an example of Bilbao’s commitment in this area, the city has adhered to various initiatives in favour of sustainability:

  • As early as 1998, Bilbao signed the Charter of European Cities towards Sustainability, known as the Aalborg Charter
  • In 2010, Bilbao joined the Global Covenant Of Mayors For Climate Energy
  • In 2016, the 8th European Conference on Sustainable Cities & Towns was held in Bilbao during which the Basque Declaration was signed, outlining new ways for European cities to be productive, sustainable and resilient cities for a sustainable and inclusive Europe
  • Also in 2016, the City Council signed a commitment with Greenpeace to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

q: To what degree does Bilbao assess city development and the outcomes of policies and projects by wellbeing metrics, as well as economic metrics?

A: Bilbao City Hall is working to place citizens at the centre of political action, listening to their demands and trying to make policy based on their interests. Based on this premise, Bilbao City Council wants to foster a relationship of transparency, participation, closeness and commitment to citizens, seeking to promote a sense of citizenship, belonging and commitment to the environment – and to the common good. Our firm commitment is to connect with Bilbao society and respond to its concerns about our future in an effective way, transforming the needs of citizens into tangible responses.

Participation is one of the pillars of Bilbao City Council’s Open Government approach. To this end, we have a very rigorous process with cross-cutting and sectoral plans. We measure the impact of policies and periodically carry out citizen satisfaction surveys to find out how they live, how they feel. We even carry out some evaluations of plans with associations and various stakeholders.

Q: For Bilbao, how big a concern is climate change as regards the health of citizens, for example, in relation to air quality and more active travel?

A: Over the last few years, Bilbao City Council has established strategic guidelines that establish the objectives to be pursued and that serve as a guide for the articulation and deployment of sustainable and environmentally responsible measures, which obviously have an impact on the health of citizens.

These include, among others:

  • Air quality: in 2019 Bilbao launched its Air Quality Improvement Plan.
  • Bilbao’s Sustainable Energy Action Plan 2020: establishes a roadmap to achieve a number of ambitious targets in the areas of energy efficiency, sustainable mobility, renewable energies and waste generation and
  • This plan has helped set a guideline for making Bilbao a more energy-responsible city, and has guided the City Council in the implementation of municipal projects that have contributed to improving the quality of life of the citizens as a whole.
  • Bilbao’s Environmental Strategy 2020-2050: this is a continuation of the sustainable energy action plan. This strategy goes deeper into new actions in the field of sustainability and the environment to strengthen the transformmational essence of the city, and constitutes a roadmap to position Bilbao as a global reference point in terms of environmental protection under the slogan: “Bilbao, a sustainable, resilient and healthy city”. It seeks to leverage Bilbao’s contribution based on certain dimensions, including “Carbon Neutral Bilbao”, aimed at preparing the city for the transformation towards a more efficient, sustainable, resilient, safe and healthy energy model, and “Bilbao adapted to climate change”, aimed at making Bilbao a city that is better adapted to the risk associated with foreseeable climate change.
  • Bilbao Climate Change Adaptation Plan: parallel to the Bilbao Environment Strategy 2020-2050, the City Council establishes, on the basis of this plan, the foundation from which to face up to the effects of climate change.
  • Urban Klima 2050: The City Council, in addition to having articulated its own strategic guidelines, has also adopted commitments shared with other territories in its quest to contribute to tackling climate change. Among these commitments, Urban Klima 2050 (the Basque Country’s climate action project, which has also been approved by the European Union) stands out. Through this plan, the city seeks to tackle climate change through 40 specific actions that can be transferred to other areas of the Basque Country and the European Union.

Q: How well is the city able to measure wellbeing and track the impact of future climate action upon it? What plans do you have to be able to do this more effectively?

A: Based on the above strategic guidelines, there are several specific initiatives of interest that focus on sustainability and the environment.

First is the Sustainable and Integrated Urban Development Strategy (DUSI) of the city of Bilbao. Within the framework of the DUSI, an initiative is being developed in the Zorrotzaurre District with several projects underway that have great potential to impact on the sustainability of the city and the quality of life of citizens (eg construction of flood tanks, urbanisation and implementation of geothermal energy, implementation of renewable energy generation facilities, implementation of advanced energy management systems).

Second is the city’s Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan, PMUS. The Bilbao City Council is promoting the improvement of the environment and the reduction of polluting emissions through projects linked to mobility, where it is garnering international attention and setting the benchmark for intelligent mobility. In 2021, it was a finalist for the 9th Award for Sustainable Urban Mobility Planning and was the winner in the EU Urban Road Safety Award category. In this field, the following projects in particular stand out:

  • Bilbao 30: This project established a maximum speed of 30km/h on all streets in the city, making it the first city in the world with more than 300,000 inhabitants to adopt this measure. This project, which has already received distinctions such as the European Union’s Urban Road Safety Award, has shown promising results despite having been launched only a year ago. Since then, Bilbao has managed to reduce pollution, providing a safer and healthier space for its citizens, and has managed to reduce traffic accidents by around 28 per cent.
  • Implementation of low emission zones (LEZ): As part of its commitment to intelligent mobility that promotes sustainability and citizens’ health, Bilbao City Council is also working on the implementation of LEZs, which controls the access of vehicles that do not have the environmental label issued by the Directorate-General for Traffic. This project will use environmental monitoring systems to determine the pollution of vehicles circulating in these zones, and will implement sensors to measure air and noise quality, always focusing on guaranteeing the health and well-being of Bilbao’s citizens.

Finally, the city is using urban planning as a tool for sustainabilityIn December 2020, the General Urban Development Plan of Bilbao was provisionally approved. The plan aims to achieve high levels of quality of life and urban quality, and is the result of a participatory process with citizens. Its strategic objectives include sustainability and the fight against climate change. To this end, it envisages actions such as the following:

  • Promoting sustainable mobility
  • Extending the Green Belt and forest parks and improving their connection with the city
  • The creation of new green areas in the city, expanding urban parks
  • Reducing land consumption
  • Integrating climate change adaptation