Pinpointing areas of change in cities for big impact

Stephen Goldsmith is director of the Center for the Living City and an associate professor at the University of Utah. Through a partnership with Knight Foundation the center is publishing an English edition of “Urban Acupuncture,” a guide to help civic leaders tackle community challenges written by Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil. Photo credit: Chelsea Gauthier.

Walking from the Bus Rapid Transit stop toward Jaime Lerner’s office a few blocks away last October we were struck by the civility of Curitiba’s streets.

One of Lerner’s many legacies is his attention to streets, their multiple uses, their democracy, and as urban activist Jane Jacobs described them, “the ballet of the sidewalks.” Our observations, magnified by contrast with the auto-dependent North American cities where my students live, were about to become part of our conversation with Lerner. Today, Lerner is an internationally renowned architect, working with a team of young practitioners in an office he refers to as “a clinic.” He consults on projects in cities worldwide, and 15 of my university students from multiple disciplines had been invited for coffee with him to talk about urban ecology. As we rounded the corner to his building, elegant as it was modest, we were about to have a transformative conversation.

Stepping into the boardroom dappled with light through walls of windows, we were at once reminded of Lerner’s love of design. Sculpture, paintings, furniture, books, a well-worn wooden conference table, the scale of the room, the smell of coffee, this room was now set as a stage for star-struck students to talk about the dramatic differences they observed on the streets of Curitiba. They had seen films about the city, but today there was a palpable sense of connection to Curitiba and its people. When Lerner walked into the room, his warm voice welcoming us as fellow workers, we began collecting wisdom and memories.

“Don’t,” insisted Lerner, “get stuck in your own bureaucracies.” Getting mired in the inertia of municipal planning practice was something he knew how to avoid, and his legendary transformation of Rua XV de Novembro (15th of November Street) is an iconic example. Lerner wanted to turn this auto-centric street into a people-centered place and, not wanting to wait for a lengthy study and design process to interfere with his experiment, ordered his public works department to close the street and pave it with cobblestones the following weekend. The street has been closed to automobiles ever since, and is a bustling place of commerce and culture. It is also an example of Lerner’s concept of “Urban Acupuncture,” which is the title of Lerner’s book being published this fall with support from Knight Foundation.

As a project of the Center for the Living City and in collaboration with Island Press, we are looking forward to having “Urban Acupuncture” finally find its rightful place in our English language library of books about cities. Though the book has been published in several languages, until now an English language version has only been an idea. This is a practical book that draws upon our love of places. It is intimate and bold, a celebration and a parable with cautionary notes. It is a book that will find its way into the hands of planning students, planning professionals, policymakers and citizens who love their places. Examples of urban acupuncture in practice can be found in Candy Chang’s, “Before I Die” animations of streets and buildings, the occupation of parking places during “National Parking Day,” and even a project led by students who transformed an underperforming concrete desert into a reimagined plaza.

Lerner’s “Urban Acupuncture” is to urbanism what Neruda’s “Ode to Common Things” is to poetry. Both of these books are about the essences of our lives. For those of us working to preserve, restore and enhance the quality of our lives in places we care about, Lerner’s book is an ode to common sense.

Below is an excerpt from “Urban Acupuncture” by Jaime Lerner.

‘People in the Streets’ 

Sometimes, I stop to watch how a drop of molasses draws a swarm of ants. Or how a bar, or a general store in a poor neighborhood—with their blazing lights and animation—attract people. In fact, it’s mainly people who attract people. Man is both a protagonist and a spectator in the drama of everyday life unfolding on the city stage.

Good acupuncture is about drawing people out to the streets and creating meeting places. Mainly, it is about helping the city become a catalyst of people. A mass transit hub, for example, doesn’t have to be just a bus station. It can also be a gathering place.

In Strasbourg, the inviting design of the tram stops makes for pleasant points of rendezvous and leisure. In Seoul, I saw a metro station that harbors an infant recreation area and a small planetarium. In Curitiba, buzzing bus terminals, where some 500,000 to 800,000 passengers come and go each day, have become agreeable public malls.

The more that cities are comprehended as the integration of functions—bring together rich and poor, the elderly and the young—the more meeting places it will create and the livelier it will become. The design of public space is important. Place de la Bourse in Lyon; Barcelona’s Plaza del Sol; the Gammeltorv of Copenhagen; Tokyo’s Tsukuba Centre Square; and the Pioneer Courthouse Square, in Portland, Oregon, are magnificent examples of how to transform the city by creating dynamic and inviting public spaces. 

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