arch-peace editorials

20 April 2008

From Urban Acupuncture to the Megapolis

For some time I have been interested in the notion of ‘urban acupuncture’. To my knowledge there is no specific body of literature that defines this concept. It is a term that I first heard used at a conference concerning a design approach for a project in India and I regret to say that I have now forgotten the name of the presenter and the details of project. A few years later I find myself returning to this concept in both my practice and teaching in relation to the design of urban environments. My simple definition of urban acupuncture is a design approach that proposes minimum intervention for maximum gain and focuses on connections and settings of social interaction rather than objects. For me it is very much grounded in earlier seminal works such as Rowe and Koetter’s (1978) ‘Collage City’ and Christopher Alexander’s (1975) ‘The Oregon Experiment’.

Rowe and Koetter position themselves in opposition to the grand vision of the ‘master plan’ arguing, “total design can only mean total control” (1978:283). They believe that a ‘final’ and ‘complete’ solution cannot be identified; everything is conjecture, a hypothesis based on particular value judgments and the available ‘facts’ to hand. The danger is that grand utopian visions of urban planning are presented as value-neutral and ‘true’. They suggest that there is never ‘sufficient information’ available to construct an ideal formulation of the future, but we must still act. Our best course of action is to approach urban design as a form of ‘bricolage’ or the recycling of meanings and forms through multiple and diverse means. Urban design thus requires imperfect and incomplete visions created from within rather than grand visions transplanted from without.

Christopher Alexander also argues that urban design should be conceived as a slow process of evolutionary change rather than as a totalitarian ‘quick fix’. In the ‘Oregon Experiment’ he sets out a series of six principles that comprise a generic approach to urban design as a series of ‘local acts’ based on ‘patterns’ derived from participatory design. The implementation of the design is focussed on principles of ‘piecemeal growth’ and ‘coordination’ combined with a process of ‘diagnosis’ in which the health of the built environment is continually assessed on an annual basis.

Urban acupuncture adopts a similar premise. It seeks out the ‘diseased’ places of high urban capacity and inserts catalytic ‘needles’ to stimulate (not dictate) the development of diverse activity. Teddy Cruz, an architect working in the border towns of San Diego and Tijuana employs the concept in his work to create hybrid programs of community housing and services in under-utilised and leftover pockets of the city. As he describes it, “The goal has been to achieve maximum effect with minimal gestures, to take existing patterns of use as a point of departure, and to develop urban solutions with enough persuasive force to change obsolete planning policy and zoning regulations” (Cruz 2005). One of his projects, ‘Living Rooms at the Border’ for Casa Familiar, a local advocacy group, integrates 12 flexible affordable housing units, a community centre and offices, a productive garden and shared communal space. On a site originally zoned for three housing units, Cruz has negotiated the increased density by framing it as ‘social choreography’ rather than ‘bulk’.

Perhaps the most well known exponent of the concept of urban acupuncture, however, is Jaime Lerner, ex mayor of Curitiba in Brazil. For Lerner, the focus of urban acupuncture is on small-scale interventions that can be undertaken within short time frames, producing an immediate and catalytic effect. Under his leadership, Curitiba saw the implementation of a series of highly successful social, educative and urban infrastructure initiatives, many of which have inspired further initiatives in other cities.

At a recent conference in Melbourne, Eco-Edge 2, the former mayor of Bogota in Columbia, Enrique Penalosa, spoke passionately about the transformation of his city through the implementation of initiatives such as the ‘Transmilenio’ bus service based on the Curitiba model, pedestrian streets and urban greenways. At the same conference a series of speakers discussed the urban transformation of China where the Government plans to construct 400 new cities by 2020. The scale of this urbanisation is unprecedented. As Neville Mars, Director of the Dynamic City Foundation in Beijing, noted, it is equivalent to the construction of Europe within 20 years.

In this context, what models of urban design are appropriate? Do principles of evolution, local acts, piecemeal growth and diagnosis have any place in such situations? Frankly, this physical and temporal scale of urbanisation terrifies me. I have no answers, and yet immediate consideration of this issue seems paramount. The consequences for global sustainability are potentially enormous. Indeed, in answer to the question ‘what is the biggest contribution Australia can make to sustainability?’ posed in a discussion session on Government initiatives at the conference, Peter Davidson of LAB Architects simply stated ‘help China’.

Many of the architects and urban designers speaking at the conference proposed alternatives to the mono-functional thinking and urban sprawl that seems to underpin much of the urbanisation in China. Xuemei Bai, Senior Scientist at CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, also noted how the wide-reaching control and influence of the Chinese Government can quickly be turned towards more sustainable practices in a way that is inconceivable in Australia. The interest in environmental initiatives certainly exists as demonstrated by the proposed construction of the world’s first ‘eco-city’ with a zero emission target on an island offshore from Shanghai. Nevertheless, I think the complexities of social sustainability in the city will be harder to come to terms with. As Neville Mars noted, the physical transformation in China is a consequence of an equally fast-paced cultural shift from the ‘collective dream’ of communism to the ‘scattered dream’ of the market. The dreams have barely had time to take root in the mind before they are becoming a physical reality.

Maybe the slow evolutionary process of transformation of these urban environments will take place as the dust begins to settle and the megapolis has been constructed and occupied. New patterns of social networks and spatial practices will emerge and the city will adapt and be adapted to accommodate them. Whether the modern ‘planned’ city is flexible enough to adjust to these shifts is more questionable. Furthermore, the constructed urban fabric will inevitably influence this process of social transformation since both places and people exist in a state of dialectical tension. It seems therefore that some tentative, imperfect and incomplete visions need to be put on the table now.


Alexander, C. (1975) The Oregon Experiment, New York, Oxford University Press

Cruz, T. (2005) “Urban acupuncture: a San Diego firm sees new possibilities for healing the housing crisis”, Residential Architect, Jan-Feb 2005. Viewed 05/04/08 at

Rowe, C. & Koetter, F. (1978) Collage City, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Ceridwen Owen
Architects for Peace, April 2008


arch-peace said...

Thanks for another wonderful editorial Ceridwen, I would just like to comment on the notion of an apparent dichotomy between ‘large vision’ and small scale interventions, which I tend to think that it has been oversimplified in the last decades.

Thinking of Jaime Lerner, and Curitiba, a city I visited last year, it is difficult to separate the two modes of actions: large vision from their subsequent implementation (excellent public transport services, social and environmental services among many others).

In Curitiba there has been ‘social planning’, and urban infrastructural planning, assisted by ‘educational’ planning. While the city has improved its transport networks, in conjunction with urban improvement the ‘Free University of the Environment’1, offers free and open courses for all on areas of ecology, architecture and urban sustainability. Apart form the university courses, under the title of ‘Environmental Community Program’ it caters for the community in general and for business, public organisations, government, worker unions and people of the third age. By the way they also have programs such as socio-environmental housing (located next to the university)—these are ‘real’ but also experimental eco-housing. While I have not seen the evidence, it would be hard to believe that this type of education would not have an impact on the society and the city. Let’s keep in mind that this university is relatively centrally located and the city is not that large, approx. 1.7 million people.

Cooperation between government and educational institutions facilitates the exchange, implementation and community involvement in large and small ideas—planning and urban improvement among these. I don’t necessarily distrust large visions if these are considerate of and involving of the community and public institutions. In fact I don’t think we can escape this either. It is an illusion to believe that for example our government does not have an agenda that fit within an ideology—it is just not presented that way.

As opposed to Curitiba, here in Victoria there is no vision for ‘real’ public transport, instead they have opted for a ‘large vision’ of individualism and market economy deciding for all aspects of our lives, our cities, education, culture… at the expense of the collective well-being and of the environment (ecology and urban). These types of decisions are by no means ‘value free’. These are ‘master plan’ decisions, of which we see familiar expressions and their detrimental results: freeways, peripheral housing dormitories (determined by the market), universities running like businesses with they rather feeble relationship with the community.

My point here is that there may no be a contradiction between urban acupuncture and ‘master plan’ vision (always present), it all depends on the quality of that vision.


1. Universidade Livre do Meio Ambiente:
2. City of Curitiba:

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