Urban Acupuncture

Urban Acupuncture

by Jaime Lerner


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781610917278
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 02/02/2016
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 272,074
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jaime Lerner is a renowned architect and planner who served three terms as mayor of Curitiba, Brazil and two terms as governor of the state of Paraná. He has won numerous international awards, including the United Nations Environmental Award in 1990, and was nominated as one of Time magazine’s twenty-five most influential thinkers in the world in 2010. Lerner is founder of Jaime Lerner Associated Architects, served as President of the International Union of Architects from 2002-2005, and is currently a member of the board of directors of the World Resources Institute.

Read an Excerpt

Urban Acupuncture

By Jaime Lerner, Mac Margolis, Peter Muello, Ariadne Daher


Copyright © 2014 Jaime Lerner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-584-7



Urban acupuncture doesn't always have to involve bricks and mortar. Sometimes it follows the introduction of a new custom or a change of habit that suddenly clears the way to transformation. Often good urban acupuncture arises from unplanned human intervention, where no bulldozer or construction crew has ever trodden.

I often say that New York should build a monument to the Unknown 24-hour Shopkeeper. This industrious group—many of them immigrants from Korea—has done the city an extraordinary service merely by keeping its grocery stores and sidewalk delicatessens open around the clock. These shops not only offer infinite shelves of merchandise but also enliven whole neighborhoods by literally lighting up countless dreary street corners. People mingle and meet under the glow of city lights as they go out for nighttime shopping. And all of this makes for a much safer city.

And since these shopkeepers never sleep, their blazing storefronts serve as vital city reference points doing far more for the city than any parade or cultural festival ever could. This is why the unknown shopkeeper and the myriad mom-and-pop businesses rank among the finest acupuncturists of New York.

Many of the stores in New York's "Little Korea" recall the charms of Les Halles in the wee hours of predawn Paris. For decades, this market was the heart of the city, a pulse beating away for generation after generation, much like the night markets that keep the streets glowing after dark in thousands of cities around the world. To this day, a small open-air market survives on Paris's Rue de Seine at the corner of Bucci, a hallowed urban address that time has not erased.

In the East, there are many more examples, starting with the Tokyo fish market, which is aboil with commerce long before the sun comes up. Here giant octopuses are on display; there stingrays spread their great wings over ice. Everywhere buyers and sellers haggle and hawk their wares, a Babel of commerce that announces each new day.

I often say that all these people who toil away at daybreak are urban orderlies, pumping oxygen into cities that must never be allowed to stop breathing. They are a city's true lifeblood.


One feature common to all good urban acupuncture is the imperative of preserving or restoring the cultural identity of a place or a community. So many cities today need acupuncture because they have neglected their cultural identity. A sad example is the disappearance of the local movie theater.

In the past, the movie house was the magic realm of fantasy, music, utopia, reality, dreams, and hope. Above all, cinemas were places for city residents to meet and mingle.

Movie theatres influenced entire generations, and not just culturally; they were places where people gathered, gossiped, laughed, and argued, their discussions often echoing late into the night and reverberating in other parts of town. Cinemas helped spread fashion and fads, literature and dance, music and even history. And nothing rivals the movie house when it comes to recording the important dates of a nation.

Movie theaters had their own stories to tell and became part of urban history. Yet in most cities around the world they are disappearing. In scores of towns, the old movie house has given way to supermarkets, churches, and so on. Too often, the traditional movie house has been replaced by shopping mall cineplexes; but that is another story.

A city's memory is like an old family portrait. And just as we wouldn't think of tearing up an old family picture—and the old movie theatre is part of this picture—we can't afford to lose this point of reference, which is so vital to our own identity.

In the state of Paraná in southern Brazil, a project has been launched to restore old movie theatres. These restored theatres are equipped with the latest in movie projection and viewing technology, thereby creating new venues for national film festivals and independent productions that are so often neglected by the major studios and the shopping mall cineplex.

In this way, the old Cinema Novo is a program that reinforces our cultural identity. This is urban acupuncture trying to recuperate our collective loss of memory and identity.


When I first arrived in Seoul some years ago, the South Korean capital appeared to hold few surprises. Here was one more ancient Asian city transformed by an impressive vitality, hurtling vertiginously into modernity; so much so that you might never have guessed this city dated back 800 years.

Seoul was another example of a place where things were done in a hurry: huge avenues and freeways speeding toward a chaotic downtown where people have to dive in and out of underground passages just to cross the street. The cars, meanwhile, rolled over unblemished pavement, almost as if gliding on a red carpet.

This is how so many cities were built, and destroyed, by kowtowing to the combustion engine. Beautiful, historic cities, each one appointed with magnificent buildings and palaces, and surrounded by our modern-day dragons—automobiles.

My first surprise in Seoul was being invited to observe a rare urban initiative. The mayor's office wanted to set aside a major portion of the city's streets for the Curitiba Bus, a mass transportation system anchored by an express bus and known as the BRT, or Bus Rapid Transit.

The greatest surprise of all: the Seoul government planned to remove the spaghetti-like tangle of elevated highways from the transit-choked downtown area and revive a stream, the Cheonggyecheon, which once captured the runoff from the winter thaw from the surrounding slopes. The stream—believe it or not—had been bulldozed decades before in order to hide the degradation and pollution that had beset it over the years. The elevated ways were built on top of reclaimed areas.

Now the plan was to restore the site by salvaging the river and revitalizing the adjacent areas. The project was expensive (repairing a mess is never cheap), but the enthusiasm of the mayor and his staff was compelling. Their plan also included making way for pedestrians (a people-friendly city).

As soon as we arrived, we were shown the projects. All of the planners, architects, and engineers involved demonstrated a very sharp understanding of the city: its design was clear, incorporating the hillsides and the revitalized stream. That is to say, the renewed city was already in their heads. I had no doubt that soon enough their projects would come to life as well, as they in fact did. The road infrastructure was removed to reveal the river and its course, creating an area where people and the natural environment could interact again, and reestablishing an important reference for the city.

In Seoul, I also had the privilege of sitting down with one of the city's most respected intellects—Young-Oak Kim—a philosopher with a Harvard degree who went on to study medicine. After returning to his native land, Professor Kim taught philosophy for two years in one of the most popular courses in South Korea. Now this very famous man has decided to be a reporter, looking into major issues. Our conversation was a celebration. We shared so many ways of thinking, and especially a belief in simplicity—the essence of Eastern philosophy.

During our visit, Professor Kim drew for me a free-hand map of the city. What impressed me most was how closely he "read" the city, citing the meaning of each neighborhood, of each location, and of every name, all done so simply and concisely. Like the engineers of the Cheonggyecheon restoration, Professor Kim understands the elements of the city like few others can. If only all cities had fewer peddlers of complexity and more philosophers!


History tells us that Beijing is one of the world's oldest cities. In the early fifteenth century, it was divided into two cities, separated by walls. The inner city cradled the Imperial City, surrounded by a 10-km wall. This was "The Forbidden City," where moats marked the perimeters of the palaces of emperors. The last emperor was Pu-Yi, overthrown in 1911 and expelled from the city in 1924.

But Beijing has lost one of its most striking features. The sea of bicycles that was part of the traditional landscape has disappeared. On each bicycle sat one person, or maybe more. It was a city of people.

Today's Beijing is more like an encampment of ultra modern buildings, surrounded by enormous freeways, bypasses, clover leaves, and beltways. In the "donut" formed by the second and third beltway rings, there's a Central Business District. Beijing is now a city of roads.

Close to the Forbidden City and in some immediately adjacent areas, it's still possible to make out small sections of what used to be the old city—a city that today is preserved only in old movies and books.

Beijing needs a good dose of urban acupuncture to reclaim its rightful place in the sun. That means fewer highways, less concrete, and more room for people and bicycles. Just a pinprick here and there might be enough to bring back the old-fashioned streets and the city buses. How presumptuous of me! Trying to teach acupuncture to the Chinese!


Like clockwork, a breeze wafts in announcing the evening. A plaza glows softly under the stars. The city is safe and peaceful as lovers stroll and children skip along the sidewalks. Here and there, you can still glimpse the city's soul: the old neighborhoods, the soft colors, the sidewalks echoing the beat of a distant salsa.

What a shame a good part of this Colombian city's identity has been lost amid so many outsized avenues. Just to cross them, you'll find yourself huffing up and over suspended pedestrian bridges.

Suddenly, you stumble across an old open-air shopping mall with internal gardens, a large courtyard with live acoustic music, and not an amplifier in sight. There's no piped-in soundtrack beating down on your head.

It's devilishly hot, but by four-thirty or five in the afternoon, a soft breeze comes whispering over the city. Perhaps it's the gods themselves who are calling at last.

But there's good architecture in Cali. There it was in a small house I visited, built by architect Benjamín Barney and measuring barely 6 meters wide, with a patio. Or rather, I should say the house is the patio, embraced by several balconies.

Maybe, in this city good acupuncture means building things smaller and stepping aside to give way to the simple beauties of nature, like the handsome river or the caressing wind.



One of the first decisions I had to make in my first term as mayor of Curitiba was how to respond to a petition presented by a neighborhood association, which made a rather odd request. They asked that the city do nothing in that particular neighborhood.

I sent the secretary of public works to check into the situation. What we discovered was that the association's request, though highly unusual, made good sense. The city was tidying up the area—aligning the still unpaved streets—but what concerned the residents was that the machines might end up covering a small natural spring.

My directive to the public works authority was terse but unequivocal: "Do nothing! Urgently." Sometimes, when a city faces decisions about public works that could do more harm than good, doing nothing is the most urgent priority.

Thirty-two years later, while driving around Lisbon, I looked at the hills, Lisbon's beautiful hills, and at the river Tejo. The day's newspaper carried a story about new projects for Lisbon—tunnels and overpasses. Expo 98 had blessed the city with improvements, but mostly by aggressively renovating a blighted part of the city.

In the classical Lisbon—Avenidas Liberdade, Rocio and Colinas—maybe the best acupuncture calls for doing nothing at all, urgently.

P.S. Almost nothing, that is. How about a brazen bit of meddling? Say, painting the Santa Justa Elevator in vermilion?


It's late afternoon in Zócalo, Mexico City's old historic district, and suddenly, I get the feeling I'm going to be swallowed up in the crowd. People sluice back and forth like floodwaters. Most of them are street vendors peddling odds and ends, just trying to stay afloat themselves. Suddenly, a question hits me broadside in this human riptide: how in the world can a megacity reconcile the formal and informal sectors of the economy? So far, the answers we've come up with have been mostly fruitless if not outright unjust.

So why not call a truce to allow the two rival economies to work together? Since the day has 24 hours, the first step might be to strike an agreement to decide who works when.

Street vendors could start after hours—at say 6:00 pm, their colorful mobile stalls livening up the city as the signs go dark on many conventional storefronts. This could be a rare win-win combination for cities. One sector would help the other because both would work in sequence, keeping the city alive with commerce day and night. The round-the-clock buzz of commerce would not only please consumers but might even make the streets safer.

Street peddlers, after all, represent an institution as old as the city itself. Think of open-air markets. At a given hour, in a given neighborhood, street merchants go to work—often hours before the lights go on in traditional storefronts—and then vanish along with their wares and jerry-built booths, leaving hardly a trace.

And this arrangement works out fairly well. The open market is a moveable feast that rises early and packs up with the sun. Some cities, like Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Curitiba, have nighttime street markets. These make for pleasant rendezvous points during the less hectic hours.

Here acupuncture is performed according to the ticking of the clock.


Some years ago, a group of exceptional people from Belo Horizonte, my old friend Valério Fabris among them, managed to win respect by promoting initiatives that encouraged people to demonstrate love for their city. Call them the promoters of urban kindness.

Since then, there's been a steady flow of creative ideas and gestures reflecting the growing community awareness that urban kindness is essential to the livelihood of any city.

One storied example is the Little Cow of Leopoldina Street—a sculpture in a city park that was "adopted" by Belo Horizonte's residents. Some time ago, vandals attacked the cow and almost destroyed it. But one man took it upon himself to cross the city with a bucket of sand and cement and rebuild it. Now and again, the Little Cow sports a new look and new colors whenever the artistic impulse seizes the townspeople who have grown so fond of her.

One housewife in the São Geraldo district is famous for the nativity scene she sets up in her living room every Christmas. She never locks her door and gladly welcomes anyone who wants to visit her yuletide installation. In another Belo Horizonte neighborhood, garbage collectors sing while they work. This is how urban kindness became a tradition in the capital of Minas Gerais.

There are people who go about their business with pleasure or make no secret of the joy they take in their everyday lives.

By placing his sculptures on the sand of Leme beach in Rio de Janeiro, Oscar Niemeyer also made a gracious bow to urban kindness.

In Curitiba, after finishing his daily work, one dentist goes to his office window and plays the trumpet.

In Porto Alegre, a radio station has a window looking on the Rua da Praia, where passersby can gather and watch live interviews. Inviting the public to look over your shoulder while you work is a true example of urban kindness.

When I worked in Rio de Janeiro, there was a talented designer on our team. I will never forget the day he came to the office dressed as a clown. He took his seat at his desk and quietly worked away all day long, just as he always did. Late that afternoon, he announced that he was quitting his job because he had decided to do what he had alwaysdreamed of doing: become a circus clown.

Without telling a soul, it seemed, he had been studying after hours to be a clown. That's when he drew his first round of applause.

Some years ago, I went out to hear the superb Hélcio Milito bossa nova trio. That was a long time ago, but I will always remember that evening's gesture of urban kindness. After the show, the club's owner, seeing that I was having difficulties hailing a cab at that late hour, drove me to my hotel in his own car.

Then there is Maripá, a small city in the west of my home state of Paraná, where town officials had orchids planted along the streets. These flowers were so pretty that townspeople returned the favor by implanting their own code of urban courtesy: nobody messes with Maripá's orchids.

In Rome, my dear friend Domenico de Masi once told me another fine story of urban kindness. Every Friday, a group of residents in a certain apartment building organizes the exhibit of a painter in the elevator; you can admire the painting as you ride. But the experience isn't confined to the elevator shaft. As you go back down the stairs, you ring the bell of all the apartments on each floor. One by one, the residents open their doors and talk about the painting and tell stories about the artist over coffee. Once a week, the painting is replaced by a new one by a different artist. It just goes to show that urban kindness can also be beautiful.


Excerpted from Urban Acupuncture by Jaime Lerner, Mac Margolis, Peter Muello, Ariadne Daher. Copyright © 2014 Jaime Lerner. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface \ Carol Coletta, Knight Foundation
Foreword \ Jan Gehl
Chapter 1. 24-Hour Shopkeepers in New York City
Chapter 2. The Old Cinema Novo
Chapter 3. Rescuing a River
Chapter 4. The Forbidden City
Chapter 5. Cali
Chapter 6. Do Nothing! Urgently
Chapter 7. Around the Clock, or The 24-Hour City
Chapter 8. Urban Kindness
Chapter 9. Musical Acupuncture
Chapter 10. Continuity is Life
Chapter 11. Street Sounds, Colors, and Scents
Chapter 12. Good Recycling
Chapter 13. People in the Streets
Chapter 14. Smart Car, Smart Bus
Chapter 15. Commitment to Solidarity
Chapter 16. Draw Your City
Chapter 17. Instructions for Performing Urban Acupuncture 
Chapter 18. Creative Leisure vs. Industrious Mediocrity
Chapter 19. Self-Esteem Is Good Acupuncture
Chapter 20. Light Is Good Acupuncture
Chapter 21. Aqua-puncture
Chapter 22. The Mobility Card
Chapter 23. Eco-clock
Chapter 24. Arborescence
Chapter 25. Produced Memory
Chapter 26. Of Parks, Squares, and Monuments
Chapter 27. The One-Page Guide
Chapter 28. Urban Cholesterol
Chapter 29. Buildings with Dignity
Chapter 30. Acupuncture of Silence
Chapter 31. Ramblas and Galleries
Chapter 32. A Pinprick Doesn't Hurt
Chapter 33. Trompe L'oeil
Chapter 34. A Letter to Fellini
Chapter 35. How to Find Someone in a City
Chapter 36. The Presence of Genius 
Chapter 37. Markets and Street Fairs
Chapter 38. The Bar Counter 
Chapter 39. Love for the City

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