Urban Acupuncture Is Coming to America

Inspired by an idea that originated in 1970s Brazil, urban planners in America are increasingly thinking small scale to solve big problems.
by | December 2014

Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan is a Governing senior editor.

Architect and politician Jamie Lerner coined the term "urban acupuncture" to describe what he was doing in the 70s in Curitiba, Brazil. Flickr/ international Transport Forum

A little more than 100 years ago, the celebrated architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham offered his famously bombastic advice to those who wished to change the face of America’s cities. “Make no little plans,” he said. “They have no magic to stir men’s blood. ... Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”

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Burnham’s meaning was clear. Great cities, he believed, owed their greatness to monumental buildings, big and elegant parks, and visionary blueprints outlining goals that would take decades to achieve.

As time went by, Burnham’s florid exhortation took on the status of a cliché, but generations of architects and planners absorbed it, reaching back for it time and again to justify grandiose proposals to the politicians and philanthropists paying for them. It seems only fair to hold Burnham partially responsible for the massive urban renewal projects that turned city centers into the profoundly unappealing places most of them became in the middle and later years of the 20th century.

For the next century, it might be helpful if someone came along who could offer urban practitioners a dose of Burnham in reverse. Something akin to, “Be careful about making huge plans, because they take forever, cost too much and generate myriad unintended consequences. Make small changes that improve everyday life for ordinary people; make them right away and build on small successes to try something a little more ambitious.”

I don’t expect anybody to use those words, but it’s fun these days watching a new movement that explicitly advocates a strategy of improving cities one small step at a time, with a series of carefully targeted strokes that might be compared to the way non-Western healers restore people to health through the application of tiny pinpricks. The comparison to acupuncture is appropriate enough that practitioners have borrowed the term to describe what they are doing. They call it urban acupuncture.

Urban acupuncture is the creation of small playgrounds in city neighborhoods where children have no place to play; the planting of trees along thoroughfares desperate for a little shade; the construction of pop-up parks on tiny plots of land that used to be mere parking spaces; the setting aside of pedestrian zones that give walkers a safe refuge from the automobiles bearing down on them.

The work is performed quickly, and it is performed cheaply. It doesn’t in any way absolve political leaders from doing the big things expected of them: running schools, managing transit systems or disposing of municipal waste. But it operates on the assumption that small, seemingly inconsequential improvements can be the difference between urban monotony and an atmosphere of urban adventure.

Urban acupuncture isn’t exactly a household term yet in planning circles, but developers and public officials are starting to use it to describe what they hope to accomplish. In Kansas City, Mo., this year, a newly formed development firm said it planned to practice urban acupuncture in converting an old middle school building into a center for community vitality and an old high school into a center for creativity and innovation. In Louisville, Ky., a group working on a depressed community called Portland said it would use urban acupuncture to transform blocks riddled with abandoned row houses into a functional city neighborhood.

Whether those efforts represent genuine innovation or the co-opting of an attractive phrase is hard to tell. But there is one big-city mayor who is making urban acupuncture the centerpiece of his urban revival strategy, and that is Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles. Almost from the day he became mayor in 2013, Garcetti began talking about urban acupuncture to describe his plan to revitalize the main thoroughfares of as many as 40 city neighborhoods. “Acts of urban acupuncture” are ways to attract investors, Garcetti told one audience. He said his initiative would include pocket parks, bike corrals, sidewalk repairs and a long list of other efforts that seem to fit cleanly under the acupuncture label.

All of these enthusiasts owe a large debt to a very unusual man. Jaime Lerner, a 76-year-old Brazilian architect, began talking about urban acupuncture in the 1970s as the mayor of his city of Curitiba. In recent years he has brought it wider attention by giving impassioned speeches to audiences around the world. “I’ve always nurtured the dream and the hope,” Lerner says, “that with the prick of a needle, diseases may be cured.” And what works for patients, Lerner believes, can work for cities. “Almost always,” he insists, “it is a spark that sets off a current that begins to spread. This is true urban acupuncture.”

Curitiba isn’t a tiny place -- the population is currently about 1.7 million -- but it is only the eighth-largest city in Brazil, and compared to the country’s two giants, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, it is a backwater.

Still, the news of Lerner’s pinprick experiments began reaching the outside world not too long after he began his first mayoral term in 1971 at the age of 34. In his first year as mayor, after his public works department assured him that turning a busy street into a pedestrian zone would take several months, Lerner organized a crew and did it in 72 hours. “In acupuncture,” he said afterward, “the prick of the needle has to be quick.”

Later in his mayoral career, Lerner attracted attention by giving poor people groceries in exchange for garbage; it was an effort to control the city’s serious waste disposal problem. When the cost of new lawn mowing equipment turned out to be more than he thought Curitiba could afford, Lerner brought in sheep to cut the grass and used the wool to pay for children’s programs.

Some of Lerner’s initiatives in Curitiba gave him a reputation as more of a showman than a serious student of government, but that reputation was largely overcome with his implementation of a new bus system that essentially created the concept of bus rapid transit for cities around the world. In addition to providing buses that moved at higher than usual speeds on dedicated travel lanes, Lerner’s system was full of small innovations that made the passengers more comfortable, such as bus stops that looked like train stations and vehicle doors that opened at platform level, eliminating the need for passengers to climb up and down in order to ride. “It was creative acupuncture,” Lerner said of his bus project, “and a great victory over laborious mediocrity.”

After completing three terms as mayor of Curitiba and seven years as governor of the surrounding state of Parana, Lerner began devoting much of his time to refining and promoting his ideas about urban government. He published a short book called Urban Acupuncture, aimed at explaining what he meant by the term and how urban leaders could apply it to their communities. This fall, after nearly a decade, it was translated into English.

Lerner is a disciple of the late urbanist Jane Jacobs, and there are echoes of Jacobs in the vignettes and aphorisms that make up the bulk of his book. More than anything else, Lerner believes, urban acupuncture is an effort to preserve or restore community identity. “The city is the last refuge of solidarity,” he declares. “Good urban acupuncture is about drawing people out to the streets and creating meeting places.”

Sometimes that means pocket parks. Sometimes it means redesigning sidewalks to be friendlier to pedestrians and bicycles. Occasionally, as happened in Curitiba during Lerner’s mayoralty, it means using public money to subsidize a coffeehouse whose threatened disappearance would rob an entire neighborhood of its only real gathering spot. Or it might mean a public campaign to restore single-screen movie theaters that are being swallowed up by the nearest multiplex. In Lerner’s view, one-screen theaters were community meeting places of a kind that no multiplex can duplicate.

In addition to his experiences in Curitiba, Lerner points to other community icons that he notices thriving or declining in different parts of the world. He sees New York’s 24-hour groceries, owned largely by Korean immigrants, as havens of safety and sociability that didn’t exist in earlier decades. He walks through an Arabian souk and muses that “the marketplace is acupuncture of identity at a time when many cities are losing theirs.” He takes heart when he notices that the chaotic city of Beijing is trying to create more pedestrian spaces. “Just a pinprick here and there,” he says hopefully, “might be enough to bring back the old-fashioned streets and the city buses.”

One of the simplest and most effective forms of urban acupuncture, Lerner believes, is the planting of trees—just about everywhere and as many as possible. “Trees,” he says, “are acupuncture that ease the pain caused by the absence of shade, life, color and light.” He recalls the time he told residents of Curitiba that the city would bring them trees for shade if they would promise to water them. Two decades later, Curitiba had planted a million new trees.

Lerner sometimes comes off as more of a dreamer than a pragmatist, but then again, it’s hard to imagine anything much more pragmatic than planting a tree or widening a sidewalk to benefit pedestrians. And it’s worth remembering that Lerner didn’t create his urban visions from the comfort of tenured academia or from a job in a planning firm. He spent the better part of two decades as an elected mayor and as a governor. What he accomplished is hard to do from a position in the clouds.

Jaime Lerner understands just what he means by urban acupuncture. Whether the planners and public officials who borrow the term will all have the same understanding seems doubtful. On the other hand, they’re bound to grasp some of it. And as Lerner himself would say, that’s one pinprick in the right direction.


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