Managing Tensions with Leadership and Equity

Posted by Gretchen Moore

Riverfront redevelopment in Bilbao, Spain

There are so many fascinating takeaways from last month’s BUILD conference in Bilbao, Spain. I’ve been poring over my notes and am still astounded at the amount of content we covered in just two and a half days! The overarching takeaway for me is that revitalization stories don’t start at “happily ever after.” Bilbao’s success was hard-fought and that battle continues every day. As urban leaders, we must continually strive to improve our cities by embracing the pillars of creativity, perseverance and equity.

Bilbao has been innovative in so many ways, but one example that I really loved is their approach to community involvement and empowerment. Like many cities, Bilbao’s City Council struggled with tensions arising from how to best allocate budget funds. City leaders were divided over investing in the city’s core (downtown) or investing outside the city center (neighborhoods).

Bilbao’s approach to equity in revitalization was to encourage citizens to become involved in municipal government through District Councils. Each of the 8 council districts has a set budget and its own civic council made up of the Council Member and leaders from community groups, neighborhood groups, merchant groups and more. Together, those groups decide which projects to fund in their own district, giving community stakeholders the opportunity to set their own funding agendas.

The funding recommendations from the District Councils are then presented to the City for funding. This way, even though downtown gets more funding than individual districts, each district still receives funding for what is important to them.

Breakout session participants listen as Bilbao civic leaders reflect on their experiences in managing tensions around urban renewal projects.

We learned about this and other equity approach scenarios during the breakout session, “Walking the Line: Tensions in Urban Transformation.” The session included a tour of several of Bilbao’s signature transformation projects. Tour leaders Juan Alayo, Bilbao’s Director of Planning and Pablo Otaola, General Manager at Zorrozarre Management Commission talked to us about the importance of managing tensions in urban transformation projects.

I loved this breakout session because it reinforced the story that our work, that of revitalizing cities, is not always graceful or beautiful. Most often it is clumsy and contentious. And that’s ok as long as we continually strive to improve, to be thoughtful leaders and to always remember that our community as a whole is more important than any one individual or special interest.

Bilbao’s underground metro took decades to complete. Political infighting, public disagreements and special interests halted and altered the plans until opposing parties began working together. It was finally completed in 1995. It is now the third largest metro company in Spain.

 After the tour, our group had time to discuss what we had learned. We talked a lot about what civic leaders need to do to manage tensions, particularly during significant urban transformation.  IDOM’s Marc Potard, an urban planner in Bilbao, said that the way to successfully manage tensions is with strong leadership and vertical integration.  We need strong urban leaders to take us through these sometimes painful transitions. At the same time, we need leaders who represent all members of our society. That doesn’t mean everybody gets whatever they want – that’s not possible. But, we need to always create opportunities for real community engagement and work diligently to find appropriate compromises.

I was so grateful to be part of this discussion and breakout session. It helped remind me that:

All cities face similar challenges

There is always a creative and equitable solution to every challenge

The best investment we can make in our cities is to cultivate strong and thoughtful leaders


Thank you to the German Marshall Fund of the United States for hosting a convening of innovative and inspiring leaders who embrace the challenge of improving our urban environment.




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