Translated from the Portuguese by Mac Margolis, Peter Muello and Ariadne Daher

Island Press, 2014 

ISBN: 9781610915830 

Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain


For a Nature-lover, whose heart can so easily feel uplifted by a walk through the woods, there might appear to be little inspiration in the cement and glass canyons of the city. Yet some cities and towns pulse with life and others don’t. So what is it that makes some areas feel vibrantly alive and others seem cold and dead?

Any building, any town, any place is made not only out of the physical ingredients that compose it but the patterns of movements and events and the flow of energy in and around it. This wisdom has been around for six millennia in the East, where Feng shui is widely accepted and practised.

Most urban spaces and buildings in the West are designed and built with no sensitivity whatsoever to these subtle energy currents. Which is why Jaime Lerner’s book is called Urban Acupuncture. It is all about bringing life back into dead spaces and restoring the flow of energy to places where it has been blocked or stifled.

Lerner, who was three times mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, and is also an architect and a popular advocate for sustainable and liveable urbanism, describes how some city planners have worked to restore life and dynamism to ailing urban areas. Sometimes remedies might be large and bold, such as the disinterring of a neglected, sewer-like watercourse in Seoul, Korea, that had been paved over to make a road and turning it into a living, vibrant river, edged with plantings and pedestrian walkways. Other cities have repurposed old, disused railway lines as linear urban parks, creating delightful new energy flows.

Some interventions such as establishing farmers’ markets and co-ops and turning old factories into shopping centres have relied more on people than on bulldozers. But in every case, the object has been to restore those mysterious currents of aliveness that we find healthful, comforting and pleasant and which help to bring us together and deepen our connections with each other and with the habitat that sustains us. Lerner talks about ‘pinpricks’ of urbanism—projects, people, and initiatives that ripple through their communities to uplift city life. He says:

I believe that some of the magic of medicine can and should be applied to cities, for many of them are ailing and some are almost terminal. Just as good medicine depends on the interaction between doctor and patient, successful urban planning involves triggering healthy responses within the city, probing here and there to stimulate improvements and positive chain reactions.  

In urban health, just as in rural health, diversity is a key element. As Lerner points out: A city pocked with lifeless suburbs or tracts of urban real estate devoid of housing is just as skewed as one strewn with abandoned lots and ramshackle buildings. Filling up these many urban ‘voids’ can be the first step to sound acupuncture…An important step is to add elements that may be missing from a given area. If there is plenty of commerce or industry but no people, then housing development could be encouraged. If another district is all homes and apartment blocks, why not boost services? Any building that falls empty must quickly be filled with something, albeit only temporarily, to ensure continuity. For continuity, he says, IS life.

Its publishers describe this book as …a love letter to the elements that make a street hum with life or a neighbourhood feel like home. After all, when you love your home you take care of it and it, in turn, takes care of you. The health of the environment is as important in the city as it is anywhere else, and with more and more people living in cities, urban good health is of ever-increasing importance to the health of the planet. This is a ‘must-read’ for architects and town planners and for the rest of us an interesting and informative book.