Can urban acupuncture heal us?

9 cities feeling the pinpricks of change

Cities are getting creative with homegrown solutions inspired by the traditional Chinese medicine of acupuncture… one pinprick at a time

With the prick of a needle, diseases may be cured.

Jaime Lerner

“I have always nurtured the dream and the hope that with the prick of a needle, diseases may be cured. I believe that some of the magic of medicine can and should be applied to cities, for many of them are ailing.”

These are the opening lines of cult figure Jaime Lerner’s visionary book from 2003, Urban Acupuncture. As an innovative architect and visionary mayor, Lerner was known for being able to enrich cities through precise, quick pinpricks of change. He showed cities how to do things right, with design tactics – themselves. “Sometimes just one stroke of creativity is acupuncture powerful enough to make progress.”

The infinitely-quotable Lerner detested automobiles in cities, likening them to “the kind of guy that, he comes to the party, he never wants to leave. He drinks a lot. He coughs a lot.” 

During his three terms as mayor of the Brazilian city of Curitiba in the 1970s and 80s, Lerner’s radical ideas and regeneration efforts turned the car jammed Latin American city into “the greenest city on Earth”, proving that urban changes don’t need to be huge to be transformative. One park, building, bench or art installation can have a major effect on communities.

Whether it’s pop-up skate spots, street hawkers or painting the town, small creative interventions can create big ripples of impact.

Based on traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is said to aid the healing process for various physical and mental conditions. Fine needles inserted into the skin are thought to create ripples of long-term improvement.

According to Lerner, who leaves an enduring legacy after passing away in May 2021, cities are like the human body and can benefit from this ancient wisdom: when they are sick, they need to be healed. And design can cure a city’s ills. 

Communities around the world clearly benefit from architectural drama in the landscape, such as Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, Barcelona’s Park Güell and New York’s High Line, which all bring new life to the thriving areas. But hyper-local interventions can be smaller: as simple as revitalising scents from street food vendors; light that comes out of 24-hour delis; music that plays in a city’s streets, or a polychromatic paint job that adds pops of colour and a splash of soul.

Pinprick of change: Miami’s Skateable Object Park by British designer Yinka Ilori, 2021

Here are nine cities getting creative with quick prick fixes to pave the way to resilience – followed by an expert’s opinion

Curitiba, Brazil – fast and furious action

Jaime Lerner devised clever ways of threading water pipes and electrical cables along the steep staircases of the city’s favelas to aid the slums, but if anything encapsulates his philosophy of “act now, adjust later”, it’s his bus rapid transit systems.

‘Speedy’ turned conventional urban planning on its head

Curitiba’s Speedy Bus was true to its name, the four-month project was built in 1974 in 48 hours. The first of its kind, the pioneering urban project gave buses a dedicated lane with safe stops, turning them into a cheap and sustainable surface subway system. A clear choice for developing countries with rapidly growing populations and affordable transport needs, today there are more than 300 BRT systems around the world, from China to Iran.

New York, US – transforming NYC’s famous street

Butterfly effect: tiny fluctuations can have tremendous effects

50,000 cars pass through Times Square every day. That’s why the “rocket-like” Janette Sadik-Khan, who served as New York City’s revolutionary Transportation Commissioner from 2007-2013, continues to work for car-free, pedestrian-friendly streets. One of the bike-loving activist’s main successes in a series of interventions was to close Broadway in Times Square to cars in 2009, creating new public spaces. Traffic mayhem was replaced by deck chairs and tables – a simple and cost-efficient pinprick of change for a more liveable urban environment. Sadik-Khan was inspired by Copenhagen: “I am an unabashed thief. I basically go around the world borrowing ideas from other places.”

Lisbon, Portugal – gentrification at its pinkest

It’s just a little prick or colour – it won’t hurt 

How on earth did a red-light district known for brothels and seedy bars turn pink? When the painting of Rua Cor de Rosa (Pink Street) started in 2011, the idea seemed odd to residents, but they were quickly convinced. This eye-catching urban art project resulted in an upgrade of the neighbourhood, leading to better safety and an increased pride in the area. Its erotic history is honoured in bars that line the hip street.

Bandung, Indonesia – activist mayor broadcasts joy

From 2013 to 2018, Bandung had one of the world’s coolest mayors. The legendary Ridwan Kamil was a trained architect who hugely influenced urban regeneration. He understood that designing iconic buildings such as his Aceh Tsunami Museum plays a key role in healing the city. They bring citizens together, create a new source of pride and boost economic performance. Now governor of West Java – and hugely popular online with 4.5 million followers on Twitter – the former mayor enables citizens to contribute their own pinpricks: the smart city Command Center in Bandung gathers data on disturbances such as potholes and any complaints are tackled quickly and un-bureaucratically. 

Kamil designed the exterior of the Tsunami to express the cultural diversity of the area

Melbourne, Australia – once you pop

Never underestimate the power of the pop-up

Pop-up parks like the 2017-2018 Elizabeth Street Park in Melbourne are a great example of urban acupuncture. Featuring trees, planter boxes, artificial turf and moveable furniture, the dynamic spaces can be created quickly and easily to fix ‘ugly duckling’ intersections. They provide important data, often leading to long-term change. In Melbourne, this pop-up park served as an important gathering space to discuss the next steps for Elizabeth Street. An extensive community consultation has resulted in the Elizabeth Street Strategic Opportunities Plan, which includes more green space. Works commenced in 2020.

Freetown, Sierra Leone – planting a tree town

A group of Freetown residents pose with their seedlings

The mayor of Freetown is currently on a mission to help her port city become a “tree town”. By pledging to plant one million trees between 2020 and 2022, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr’s government is literally pricking the acupuncture needle one million times: “This isn’t just about planting trees; it’s about growing trees, and it’s about ensuring that each one of us is part of the process,” she says. “A million trees is our city’s small contribution to increasing the much-needed global carbon sink.” Growers can even use the TreeTracker app to create a unique geotagged tree ID to trade impact tokens.

Mexico City, Mexico – the only way is up

A cluster of urban acupuncture pricks has resulted In Mexico City having an overall upgrade with colourful pedestrian crossings, better street lighting and street art. In 2021, the city launched a larger-scale intervention that can best be described as a full course of acupuncture therapy – the city’s first cable car line. Connecting the outskirts to the city centre, the Cablebús offers a cheap transport alternative to millions of working class residents.

The cable car alleviates snarling traffic for people living in hard-to-reach hillside slopes

Ask the expert:
Tiago Oliveira, Associate Director at Arup 

Urban acupuncture holds a lot of potential, but can it really heal a city?

“It’s not a long process, but instead a quick prick. You don’t talk too much about it, you just go and do it,” explains Arup’s Tiago Oliveira

Oliveira was acquainted with Jaime Lerner, and jokingly describes himself as an urban planner “stuck in traffic”. To the mobility expert, urban acupuncture interventions are so successful because “they create regeneration in the city through fostering civic pride”. The process is cheap, but effective – just like acupuncture. In the urban planning process, you can use these pinpricks of change as a starting point for analysis and feedback.

For Oliveira, Lisbon’s Pink Street is exactly what urban acupuncture is all about. He explains that this purely visual intervention has resulted in a very subtle change of the uses on the street, quickly turning it from an ill-reputed area to the Lisbon nightlife mainstream. Another favourite pinprick includes ‘Eggcident’, an installation by Dutch artist Henk Hofstra in Leeuwarden, a city in the north of the Netherlands. It raised the visibility of an otherwise unremarkable square.

Zaailand Square: what it would look like if God threw giant eggs down at us

Oliveira also rates the Netherlands’ Groninger Museum (pictured below), which includes a new pedestrian and cyclist bridge. It has turned the former backwater Folkingestraat into a hip street by enabling connections.

Who should be the acupuncturist, then?

According to Lerner, himself a politician, everyone. But Oliveira disagrees, believing that politicians have the responsibility of leading interventions with citizens in the cityscape. “To create lasting change, we need good guidance to achieve the best results,” he explains. “Mayors should be the acupuncturists. You need someone qualified and experienced to perform medical procedures.”

Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris since 2014, is a good example. The self-proclaimed technocrat who doesn’t shy away from drastic solutions such as turning streets into car-free areas explains: “Once you have decided on a path, follow it. Otherwise, you are just a headless chicken.”

Once you have decided on a path, follow it. Otherwise, you are just a headless chicken.

Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris

Ideally, the ‘mayor-acupuncturist’ diagnoses the ailments of a city together with the patients, the citizens. The next step is an intervention, led by the mayor and supported by technical experts such as urban planners. A good doctor keeps checking in with the patients, asking how the ‘patient’ feels to judge the positive impact. Each pinprick offers valuable data and feedback, explains Oliveira, which helps us to see which cures do and don’t work.

One interesting example is Berlin’s Bergmannstraße. In this vibrant street, several parklets were installed in 2019 without consulting the residents. Quickly, they were shown to be in the wrong place, as they were used by party-goers to drink, sleep and even urinate. Naturally, no one wanted to use these mini green spots during the day and residents complained about high levels of noise at night. After much discussion, the local government decided to uninstall the parklets rather than making them permanent.

Instead, these spots are now ‘discussion meetups’ where local politicians give the residents a voice.

Berlin’s Bergmannstraße parklets did not work

When asked for the next big thing in urban acupuncture, Oliveira says that there should be no “big thing”, as acupuncture is made up of many small things with a large impact. However, he hopes that the understanding of the pinpricks of change and their deliberate application will grow among city authorities. This should result in urban acupuncture becoming an official tool to effect urban change alongside the more planned and comprehensive measures.

As Oliveira points out, we cannot solve all the problems of cities through acupuncture alone. There are also chronic diseases in many cities, such as injustices in land use, which need long-term approaches. Plus there is a need for changes at the economic, social, environmental and legal levels. But in the meantime, a tiny prick can make a huge difference.

What’s so good about this?

With enough pinpricks of change and mayors who are on board, urban acupuncture can work its magic, creating better cities and lasting change, not just temporary pop-ups like bike lanes during the pandemic. And there is something we can all do too. TOPIA encourages everyone to start looking for less than lively places that could use a needle of urban intervention. Meet your neighbours, open your porch to passers-by, “activate” your front balcony to bring people together, paint a sign for your street or create a community garden and swap seeds. There is a guerilla gardener in all of us. And if life gives you lemons, share them.

Meet the writer

Laura Puttkamer is an urban development specialist from Germany and writer based in London who focuses on solutions to the many challenges that cities face. She loves getting lost ,following interesting projects and her instincts, “even if walks lead to strange adventures”. Laura runs the Urbanism Book Club, Text and the City and blogs at parCitypatory.org.

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