Jaime Lerner: Architect of Urban Acupuncture and Better Cities at Curitiba

Jaime Lerner is the inventor of Urban Acupuncture, a startling new approach to city planning that allows people to define the space they live in. By Jeremy Torr. 

Curitiba, Brazil. 29 January 2012. Jaime Lerner is well-known among transport greenies for his innovative bus Jaime Lerner - the new Urban Acupuncturist who believes that people come first in any urban planrapid transit (BRT) in Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil. Home to 2 million people, Curitiba had all the usual transport and pollution problems until Lerner was elected as mayor and introduced a new, broad-based development philosophy.

“A city is like a family portrait. You may not like the nose of your uncle but you don’t tear up the whole family photo,” he explains. “In the same way, we just need to make those uglier parts of our cities more attractive. We can’t tear them apart.”

So Lerner introduced a very low-cost bus-based rapid transport (BRT) system which takes more passengers daily than New York City’s new $4 billion 2nd Avenue subway. Curitiba’s BRT offers buses that run on their own lanes every 40 seconds during peak times and averages no less than one every minute – better than most urban rail systems, and so much more attractive to commuters. Not only that, the special  BRT lanes also provide 120 kilometres of bike lanes, lined with small parks and rest areas.

Curitiba's BRT system offers better, faster, easier and cheaper transport than the New York subway

This gradual, phased, bit-by-bit approach is what Lerner describes as “urban acupuncture.” It uses well-planned, targeted, often temporary interventions to address a transport, design, economic, or social issue. They can be small, fast, and effective – like acupuncture. Buildings and public spaces can be turned into parks, event spaces, or sites for raves. Clogged streets can be designated as temporary pedestrian malls, pop-up parks, or “portable streets”.

These are configurable, moveable pieces of structure that enable storefronts to be set up quickly. Inspired by the many bouquiniste of Paris, the portable streets are being tested in Cracolandia, a “tough” part of Sao Paulo, in an effort to bring back street life. Lerner says this approach helps avoid getting stuck in bureaucracy, pointing out that “50 percent of all innovation is just starting something.”

These short sharp interventions can also have powerful “demonstration effect”, he says. Unlike major changes, they can be started – or stopped if they don’t work – quickly to show that people really prefer to walk past small shops instead of driving to a mega-mart. While planning is necessary, it also takes a lot of time, and Lerner’s “interventions” help the process of socially acceptable planning and even guide it. And Lerner’s example is spreading.

As he has demonstrated, increasing the share of bicycle riders can be part of the solution. Bogota now has 350 kilometers of cycle routes and bicycling is up to 4 percent of all trips; Santiago has a massive 690 kilometers planned, while 250 have been implemented; and Sevilla, Spain, has 120 kilometers of lanes in place, pushing up bicycles’ share of total trips to 6.6 percent in just four years.

Paley Park set the trend for small, natural spaces in metro areas

As another example of urban acupuncture, Lerner gives Paley Park in New York City as an example of how a small project can have an enormous impact and influence future planning. Paley Park with its small yet well planned waterfall, green areas and quiet amongst the hustle of Manhattan regenerated the area as a habitation and helped reinforce the value of well-designed pocket parks in the neighbourhood. 

Perhaps inspired by the example set by Lerner, Guangzhou, with its ever-growing population and tight resources, is another city moving towards some urban acupuncture, creating a new urban greenway across the city.

Working with Guangzhou city officials, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) helped create a new BRT route, which opened up a parallel bicycle infrastructure. Protected bike lanes separate car traffic from pedestrians and cyclists and have boosted bicycle use by up 53 percent in some areas. The city now boasts 1,500 kilometres of “greenways”, linear parks along rivers and canals designed for walking and biking, and 8,200 kilometres are planned for  2015.

Cycle trails offer tranquil path-side parks

“Many cities are losing the battle against degradation and violence because they settled for the view that difficulties were too big and could only be dealt with after all planning instruments and financial resources were in place,” says Lerner.

“I see cities not as problems, but as solutions. What brings a city to life is its people. The better the quality of life of the city, the better it will be.”

Photos © Internet, Curitiba City

Watch Lerner’s TED talk

Watch BRT video