Urban Acupuncture: A concise, entertaining jumble of ideas
Review of Urban Acupuncture, a book by Jaime Lerner. Island Press, hardcover 160 pp., 2014, $19.99
Jaime Lerner is a three-time former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, and also former governor of the Brazilian state of Parana. He trained as an architect and founded an urban planning and research institute in the 1960s. He is something of an urban planning legend for implementing successful and innovative Bus Rapid Transit, creating an extensive flood-control park system and employing sheep to cut the grass, and other initiatives as mayor.
Lerner offers his views of urban planning worldwide in simple, evocative language. He must be one of the most knowledgeable people in the world on urban geography. Urban Acupuncture leaps dizzyingly from cities in North America to Asia, South America, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa—sometimes without a transition.
This book is not a particularly well-organized or logical. Lerner hops from one subject to the next without explaining what topics or ideas have to do with each other. He admires the genius of modern architects in one section, and then rips into modern buildings in another chapter, comparing the poverty of their public expressions to the grandeur of historic buildings. These views aren’t reconciled: Lerner does not feel compelled to wrap things up into a neat package.
For an architect and politician, Lerner is refreshingly free of ideology, and that is a relief. He simply says what he thinks, and most of the time his views ring true. I never thought of Korean-American shopkeepers in urban planning terms, but he makes a reasonable case that they have added tremendous vitality to New York City by staying open 24 hours a day.
As a reformer who has initiated sweeping changes to a city, Lerner argues that doing nothing can be a virtue. “Sometimes when a city faces decisions about public works that could do more harm than good, doing nothing is the most urgent priority,” he explains. Truer words have never been spoken.
In the introduction, Lerner speaks of Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the Removal of San Francisco’s Central Freeway, and the restoration of Grand Central Station and creation of tiny Paley Park in New York City as examples of urban acupuncture. I wanted to learn how they relate to one another.
Lerner defines urban acupuncture as “a simple healing touch that has everything to do with revitalizing not only that specific area but also the entire district that surrounds it.” He says, “the essence of urban acupuncture is that it needs to be precise and quick.”
He then takes the reader on a world tour of his favorite places and urban planning projects, with personal commentary in his unique voice. Lerner offers no grand theories or how-to lessons. But the book contains wisdom and the writing is concise and entertaining. After reading Urban Acupuncture, I feel like I know how Jaime Lerner speaks. He would be an excellent dinner companion—especially if you love cities.