2000 M Street NW, Suite 650,
Washington, DC 20036
2014. 160 pages. Hardback, $19.99.
Jaime Lerner’s Urban Acupuncture delves deeply into urban life and what makes cities tick. Drawing on his success as both a designer and politician, Lerner sets out a series of insightful concepts and practical recommendations for enriching urban life.
Lerner is an architect and planner who served three terms as mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, a city renowned for creative urbanism projects, including its pioneering bus rapid transit system. Recognizing that buses could not compete with trains unless the buses were user friendly—able to rapidly load and transport large groups of passengers—Lerner devised the Curitiba system. Its 270-passenger articulated buses dock at above-ground “tube stations” with turnstiles for advance payment of fares and step-free boarding directly onto buses that run on dedicated lanes. The result is an internationally famous and agile but simple bus transit system that handles 500,000 to 800,000 passengers a day.
As described in this book, urban acupuncture is a big idea based on small interventions. Forswearing sweeping urban renewal projects, urban acupuncture seeks to relieve urban stress by tapping into urban energy flows with selective “pinpricks” of change. Similar to traditional Chinese acupuncture, the concept is to treat local points of blockage to revitalize cities. It gained fame in Barcelona after the fall of General Francisco Franco in 1975, when the Basque planners and architects began to add small parks and artworks to depressed areas throughout the city. Since that time, it has spread across the world from Finland to Taiwan and beyond.
Lerner expands the range of urban acupuncture to include all sorts of city amenities. In 39 short chapters illustrated with color photographs, he discusses the importance of 24-hour shopkeepers, old movie palaces, daylighting of rivers previously confined to concrete culverts (which he calls “aqua puncture”), historic preservation, markets and street fairs, and use of trompe l’oeil techniques to enliven urban views.
To this conventional mix, he adds urban kindness, creative leisure, drawing of the city by schoolchildren and residents to gain understanding of its three-dimensional form, and other catalysts of urban vitality. For Lerner, plans by themselves cannot bring about immediate transformation; it takes urban acupuncture to provide the spark that sets off a current that spreads to recover lost cultural memories.
Do not open this book expecting maps, formulas, and detailed instructions. Instead, look at it as a conversation with a wise, influential, award-winning thinker who reveals his hard-won secrets for improving city life. Lerner offers suggestions for what cities can do: Turn blighted urban areas into mixed-use civic spaces. Fill urban voids to restore continuity. Add elements that may be missing. Put housing in commercial-only districts or create temporary structures, such as markets or concert arenas, to rescue failing neighborhoods. Use “jerry-built” portable structures that can be quickly installed to promote a healthy mix of urban activities. Provide public services, facilities, and jobs in favelas to make them safer and to support their struggling residents.
Lerner reviews both good and bad examples of urban development. He says it is good that the identity of each city is reflected in a song, such as Rio’s theme, “The Girl from Ipanema,” as well as in the iconic songs that evoke memories of New York City and Chicago. He thinks it’s wonderful that San Francisco transformed an old cannery and chocolate factory into key attractions near its Fisherman’s Wharf. On the other hand, he says Beijing needs a good dose of urban acupuncture to bring back its old-fashioned streets and city buses, offsetting the contemporary cascade of concrete and highways.
At its heart, this slim book is a love letter to the colors, sounds, sights, places, and memories of the quintessential city. Fittingly, Lerner concludes with a long poem praising the silhouettes of New York City and Florence, the colors of Bologna and San Juan, the bars and street corners of Paris and Madrid, the canals of Venice and Annecy, the cathedrals of Milan and Barcelona, and the history of Rome, where the past is “just at arm’s length.” For him, every city has a personality that will be with him forever.
David R. Godschalk is planning professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and coauthor of Sustaining Places: Best Practices for Comprehensive Plans (APA Planning Advisory Service, 2014).