Zorrozaurre: an island in the city to adapt to climate change
City/Region : City of Bilbao , Spain

The Zorrozaurre project is the latest major urban regeneration operation in Bilbao. It represents a sustainable and integral plan to recover a degraded space and convert it into a new district of Bilbao. The district will be easy to reach, with affordable housing, areas for environmentally-friendly businesses, and cultural and social facilities.

Agendas addressed
Climate change
Pathways followed
  • Capitalise on local economy and production
  • Accelerate sustainability and innovation through public procurement
Bilbao City Council (2015) / Opening of the canal

Bilbao, the most populated city in the Basque Country with 346,574 inhabitants, is tackling the impact of flooding due to heavy rainfall and the possible rise in sea level.

The city, due to its location and climatic conditions, will be particularly affected by flooding and rises in sea-level. Although the main impacts along the coastal areas and within estuaries are expected to be from sea level rise, the vulnerability will be higher at high tides and during heavy precipitation periods. Zorrozaurre will be directly affected in these situations.

A lack of concrete adaptation measures to manage urban floods under climate change has been detected, along with a lack of a risk management plan covering/integrating the different flooding types.  However, at the same time there is a re-development plan in Zorrozaurre, a flood-prone area located in urban land.

In Action

The Management Commission for the Urban Development of Zorrotzaurre, founded in 2001, is currently composed of five proprietors:  The Regional Basque Government, Bilbao City Council, the Port Authority of Bilbao, and two private entities. These groups are working in collaboration to implement the Zorrotzaurre project.

After analysing Zorrozaurre’s current situation and establishing its vulnerability with neap tides and periods of heavy rain, it was seen that specific measures were needed. Those actions include the construction of infrastructure to reduce the risk of the river estuary flooding and lowering instances of leaks and breakages in the pipes by means of implementing a remote control system.

The opening of the canal will create an island

The main element of the plan is to transform Zorrotzaurre into an island. Starting from that point, the whole project tries to develop the character of being an island from many different points of view: the newly opened-up Deusto canal, the watersides converted into pathways, the uses of the canal-side land (green zones, educational, sports and cultural uses) as well as the layout of the housing in strips, perpendicular to the river and the canal, to ensure that water is visible from each angle.

The opening of the canal, work on which has already begun, is underpinned by several hydraulic studies that confirmed that the canal will play a major role in minimising the risk of flooding in Bilbao. The positive effects of the opening up of the canal will reach back up river as far as the Old Quarter of the city.

The new Zorrotzaurre

The future Zorrotzaurre will have a mixture of uses (housing, offices, shopping and other public and private installations), which will favour balanced urban development and reduced mobility requirements. In order to achieve an adequate mix of uses, economic activity will represent 25% of what is to be built.

Urban structure

The road network is simple, based on a central avenue with wide pavements and a cycle path. It will also carry the tram, which will serve the island through four stops. At each end of the island, a simple road layout will allow easy access to and from the island.


The opening up of the Deusto canal, which is 75 metres wide, will ensure flow alleviation of 1,190 m3 of water per second between the Olabeaga district of Bilbao and the River Cadagua. This will significantly reduce the risk of flooding.

The investment required to open up the Deusto Canal is estimated to come to EUR 12.1 million and the work is expected to last 19 months. Thanks to this project, Bilbao will be ready for the climate of the future.

There will be two self-sufficient residential areas, one at each end of the island. Each will house a mix of activities: housing, shops, offices, public buildings, leisure, etc.

Three bridges will be built to connect the island to the surrounding areas.

Economic activity will be concentrated in the urban technology park, which will be located at each end of the island close to the bridges for easy access.

19 former industrial buildings located throughout the island will be conserved for new uses after their renovation.


The opening of the canal aims to improve the hydraulic capacity of Bilbao’s estuary. In case of increased flow (floods) due to torrential rains or rise of sea level, the capacity of the current channel would be increased.

With this performance, some of the expected positive impacts are:

  • The level of flush to the urbanisation will be increased 1 metre, this allows to face de new urban development decreasing the vulnerability range. This will create a positive impact in economic regeneration; will push the stakeholders to invest in the development of Zorrozaurre. The urban action will implement a positive inertia and this will allow to regenerate the social fabric.


  • On the other hand, the soil and water quality will improve considerably. During the civil works, it is expected to implement an exhaustive task of decontamination of soils by a complex treatment in landfill of each m3 of extracted land. This allows to create a know-how about the use of a new technology in research and characterisation of contaminated soils.
Challenges and lessons learned

As a result of public feedback, a number of modifications were introduced into the initial planning approach, some of a minor nature and others more fundamental, the most important of which were:

  • Maintenance of the former industrial building known as the ‘Papelera’, which is located on the Deusto riverbank and which will become a cultural centre.
  • The elimination of the district heating unit, leaving its site in San Ignacio free for other public uses.


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