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food / travel

The Story Of Bilbao: Clean A River, Save The City

Architectural and planning innovations have given new life to Bilbao, Spain, transforming it from a grey post-industrial city into a trendy tourist destination.

Bilbao's Guggenheim museum
Bilbao's Guggenheim museum
Berto González Montaner


BILBAO When our small group from Buenos Aires stopped a couple of Basque men in mid-jog to ask about this city, one of them told us emphatically, "We've even got fish now!" He was referring to the Nervion River that flows through his hometown of Bilbao in northern Spain. We too have a river in our city, the Riachuelo, though it may have more in common with the Nervion's dirtier past than its current incarnation.

In a matter of decades, Bilbao has earned an international reputation for its high quality of life. Because my wife is of Basque ancestry, our first task on the visit was to systematically visit the Basque Country seeking information about her grandparents, one of whom was from the lower Abaurrea, the other from Zumárraga.

But I insisted on expanding this particular plan by adding stops in Seville, Cordoba, Granada and Barcelona. If you're ever there, don't miss Seville's cathedral and its Giralda tower, the Great Mosque of Cordoba, the Alhambra in Granada, and the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona's art nouveau basilica.

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Bilbao cityscape — Photo: Cata

But we returned to the Artxanda hill in Bilbao where we had bumped into the Basque joggers. Down ahead of us was the Guggenheim Museum shining over the river bank. To the right were the Abandoibarra park and the city's only tower, designed by an Italian. A little further were the city's Congress and Music Hall, covered with a metal shell that recalls the shipyards that used to be here. On the other side of the Guggenheim, another pedestrian bridge ties the two banks together. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, it leads to two shortish tower blocks built by Arata Izosaki. And beyond these are the charming old quarter, the cathedral of Saint James and the little shops around its base.

It's when our new friends began to offer details about how Bilbao has changed that the similarities emerged with our own Matanza-Riachuelo basin.

"This used to be all filth," they recalled of the area. "All the industrial and sewage waste ended up in the river, which was completely polluted and gave off an unbearable stench. When it rained a lot and the sea rose, the waters of the Nervion could not be evacuated, so there was flooding. All the way to the Arriaga theater at the gates of the old quarter there were up to four meters of water!"

But when they took the polluting factories out of town, created the treatment plant and cleaned the river, everything changed.

[rebelmouse-image 27088619 alt="""" original_size="1024x683" expand=1]

Factory on the Nervion River, near Bilbao — Photo: ukberri

The Plan Ría 2000 brought everything to this city that has given it new life: the Guggenheim, the parks, the Metro designed by Norman Foster, Rafael Moneo's university library. "But the good thing," said the younger jogger, "is that this isn't stopping." He indicated some of the latest public projects, such as Philippe Starck's conversion of the Old Municipal Corn Exchange. It's all part of the Guggenheim effect, as they say here, reconverting the industrial infrastructure into quality architecture to prepare the city for the tourism and culture economy.

The Nervion of yore had so much in common with our Riachuelo, even the "hanging ferry" facilities at its mouth, similar to one in La Boca. The ferry structure in Bilbao's Portugalete district was the first of its kind anywhere, and it still works. A lift will also take you onto the top of the supporting structure so you can stare down at the Nervion from its 61-meter height.

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Look At This Crap! The "Enshittification" Theory Of Why The Internet Is Broken

The term was coined by journalist Cory Doctorow to explain the fatal drift of major Internet platforms: if they were ever useful and user-friendly, they will inevitably end up being odious.

A photo of hands holding onto a smartphone

A person holding their smartphone

Gilles Lambert/ZUMA
Manuel Ligero


The universe tends toward chaos. Ultimately, everything degenerates. These immutable laws are even more true of the Internet.

In the case of media platforms, everything you once thought was a good service will, sooner or later, disgust you. This trend has been given a name: enshittification. The term was coined by Canadian blogger and journalist Cory Doctorow to explain the inevitable drift of technological giants toward... well.

The explanation is in line with the most basic tenets of Marxism. All digital companies have investors (essentially the bourgeoisie, people who don't perform any work and take the lion's share of the profits), and these investors want to see the percentage of their gains grow year after year. This pushes companies to make decisions that affect the service they provide to their customers. Although they don't do it unwillingly, quite the opposite.

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Annoying customers is just another part of the business plan. Look at Netflix, for example. The streaming giant has long been riddling how to monetize shared Netflix accounts. Option 1: adding a premium option to its regular price. Next, it asked for verification through text messages. After that, it considered raising the total subscription price. It also mulled adding advertising to the mix, and so on. These endless maneuvers irritated its audience, even as the company has been unable to decide which way it wants to go. So, slowly but surely, we see it drifting toward enshittification.

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