Landscapes and Networks in the the City-Region: The Basque City

March 27, 2017

Essay by Alfonso Vegara and Juan Luis de Las Rivas.


Mas issue bilbao the basque city 01

Euskal Hiria. © Fundación Metropoli.

A prime example of effective and comprehensive regional planning in Spain is the Directrices de Ordenación Territorial de la Comunidad Autónoma del País Vasco (Guidelines for the Territorial Planning of the Basque Country). The supramunicipal planning, regulated by the Law 4/1990 of the Territorial Planning, proposed three tools: Guidelines for Territorial Planning; Partial Territorial Planning; and Sectorial Territorial Planning. The Guidelines for Territorial Planning, approved in 1997, organized the Basque Country in fifteen functional areas. For each of the functional areas there is a Partial Territorial Plan prepared by the Basque Government in collaboration with the Provincial Councils and the affected municipalities. The development of these guidelines established the Basque Country as a polycentric urban region. Euskal Hiria (Basque City in the Basque language) is not the definition of an existing geographic reality, but the expression of a project of the future. It is a political, economic, social, and territorial project intended to provide structure and coherence to the idea of a city-region within an open and competitive international context. With it, the Basque Country can aspire to become a true city-region with a population of over two million people and an approximate density of 300 people per square meter.

The improvement of the infrastructures is allowing the population of the Basque Country to have options to accessible housing, work, education, leisure, culture, nature and small urban centers. In the new economy, it requires an extraordinary level of complexity to be able to operate at a global scale. As sociologist Saskia Sassen has brought to light, in order for companies to operate globally, they need the support of a network of highly specialized services such as intellectual capital, consulting, financial services, legal advice, marketing, new technologies, and transportation. This network of specialized services can only be located in urban centers of a certain size, that is, in cities and territories of certain critical mass. That is possible in the Basque Country because of its rich and complex urban network. The scale of the Basque territory and its dense demography also provide a strategic value to a series of natural spaces, associated to its complex orography, and connected to each other through a series of natural corridors that increase the global appeal of this territory. The Basque Country can thus establish the critical mass needed to successfully face the challenges of the new economy. In order to achieve that, it is essential to establish coherent synergies that are the outcome of the organization of the territory as a whole. The current update of the regional vision that was introduced by the guidelines, the Euskal Hiria Net strategy, highlights the uniqueness of the Basque territory, prioritizing the relationship between the urban, rural, and ecological networks that define it. On the one hand, this creates a visual order of the territorial components and, on the other hand, it emphasizes the capacity of integration of its natural and urban spaces, focusing on the aspects that connect the city-region.

Thus, the idea of Euskal Hiria responds to the opportunity to explore complimentary interrelationships between the Basque capital cities as well as between those and the rest of the urban centers of different sizes that make up the regional network of cities. The key is to maintain the identity of each one of the cities, towns, and villages and achieve the benefits of their sum in a competitive and balanced city-region. The strategy is to reach a better functional and economic integration of the three Basque capitals acting as a central hinge, as well as with other cities in close proximity such as Pamplona, Logroño, and Santander in Spain, and Bayonne in France. It is critical to develop complementary urban profiles based on aspects of identity and excellence that are unique to each of the cities that form this polycentric system of capital cities. None of the cities of this system, in an isolated way, can be relevant in the international stage of global cities. None of the Basque cities have enough critical mass to be able to offer the network of specialized services, infrastructures, and options that successful cities operating globally do offer. However, the structure of the Basque territory has important and unique competitive advantages:

  • Location at the intersection between the Paris-Madrid corridor and the Ebro and Cantabrian Coast axes.
  • Polycentric system of capital cities, with three important urban areas evenly distributed, close to each other, and with complementary and differentiated profiles.
  • Attractive network of middle-size cities key to achieve urban and rural integration, with urban cores that allow for a balanced territorial structure and social cohesion.
  • Excellent network of rural centers with their own identity and morphology that are essential to the value of local cultural heritage, with sixty-nine highly valued historic centers.
  • Rich network of natural areas interconnected with urban centers, allowing the Basque population the possibility of enjoying the biodiversity, quality of landscape, and options for leisure of its territory.

The Basque Country has a strong identity that, in terms of economy, is based on an entrepreneurial spirit and in the capacity to adapt to changes, in particular, in its capacity to overcome difficult times. Its unique structure of territorial government gets complemented with the strength of its society and marked feeling of identity and belonging to the region. Euskal Hiria and other European regions share similar characteristics, such as being polycentric and a coordination between all the components of the territory. However, Euskal Hiria, thanks to its geographic location, can become a true hinge between the European Atlantic Arc and the most dynamic areas in Europe if the integration of its network of cities, connecting infrastructures, and initiatives for cooperation with neighboring territories continues to improve.

As demonstrated with Euskal Hiria, in the contemporary city-region, regardless of its size, a thorough knowledge of the territory allows the maintenance of a certain level of coherence in terms of its shape and structure. The landscape facilitates a structural understating of the shape of the region as its substratum allows managing its large scale even with a visual logic. Despite the current complexity of the urban system, it is still viable to maintain the legibility of the landscape of the city-region. It requires the understanding of the substratum and the historic patterns that humans have created in terms of settlement, infrastructures, and interactions with the landscape. That’s why we say that the structure of the future city, completely dependent on the existing one, is based on the landscape. For that to be useful, it requires a rigorous and innovative disciplinary effort.