Three Theorems of Acupuncture Urbanism: Strategies for the Suburbs

Stefan Gruber

Be it the saturated European city, shrinking post-industrial regions or ever sprawling suburbia, Big Plans seems no longer adequate to tackle most common contemporary urban conditions of today. And yet top-down master planning still prevails in urbanism practice. Vienna’s Seestadt Aspern development provides a paradigmatic example. Though the urban design’s circular organization suggests a radial growth over time, it has been conceived at once as a final product by a mastermind. I always wonder what will happen if for unforeseen reasons only part of the project would be realized. How do planners include contingency in their design? Is Aspern’s singular figure robust enough to adapt to radical change? As half of the world population lives in cities and along with global economic crisis, dwindling energy resources and frail governance architects are challenged to devise alternative approaches to urbanism. In this context the

Especially in times of ubiquitous scarcity, the metaphor of Acupuncture is experiencing growing popularity beyond urban planning, in fields ranging from activist to artistic urban practices and from the entertainment industry to guerrilla marketing strategies. Thereby the common denominator tends to be the image of the needle: a temporary and minimal intrusion aiming at producing a quick yet powerful impact. From a disciplinary point of view of urbanism, temporary interventions represent an effective tactical instrument when applied in correlation with an overall strategy. Without however they remain ephemeral events, sparks of short lived civic empowerment and participation. Within of themselves temporary interventions are insufficient to characterize Acupuncture Urbanism – a comprehensive approach to planning with a half-century long history, but which still lacks a clear theoretical framework.

Thus tonight I will attempt to sketch such framework and describe Acupuncture Urbanism as a methodology from a planning perspective. Thus in the following discussion we might discuss and in relation to the notion of acupuncture within artistic practices operating in the city and the potentials of what is here referred to as “cultural acupuncture”. Along the way I will try to point to some structural issues that suburban conditions confront us with in order to interrogate the implications of working within a fragmented and decentralized urban milieu.

Acupuncture Urbanism calls for a relational and situative approach to engaging the city. Based on an inductive reading and physiological understanding of an urban milieu it identifies neuralgic points for focused interventions that promise to add-up to more than the mere sum of their parts. Such synergies depend on a robust overall leitbild and political stamina. Only then might urban plans be implemented also bottom-up and incrementally through constant feed-back and re-adjustments. Such fuzzy-logic approach to planning aims at regulating transformation incrementally and tapping into the self-organizing behavior of cities that Jane Jacobs already recognized as problem of organized complexity 50 years ago. It shifts architect’s attention to instigating processes rather than obsessing about final products.
In other words, if urbanization today takes place in an economic and political context that is inherently opposed to planning, we need to ask ourselves at which level to intervene? In many aspects suburbia, or the condition Thomas Sieverts more accurately refers to as “die Zwischenstadt”–the Inbetween City–is the aggregate product of uncoordinated singular decisions. Equipped with limited means and power, what are the essential parameters to control and others to leave undetermined in order to arrive at a convergence or synergies between individual interests?

One early instance of asking these kind of questions goes back to the development strategy for Curitiba, the capital of the state of Parana in Brasil. Its outlines were conceived by Jorge Wilheim in 1965 and implemented under the direction of Jaime Lerner and can be seen as the antithesis to Brasilia’s Modernist Plano Piloto, completed just five years prior. Instead of automobile highways, monumental avenues and representative buildings, Curitiba favored public transport systems, garbage recycling programs and infrastructural facilities. But rather than focussing on its pioneer sustainable policies, tonight I will use Curitiba as an example to highlight three theorems of Acupuncture urbanism:

1. A “physiological” understanding of urban systems prioritizing part-to-whole relations. By establishing local co-dependencies, the interventions will mutually strengthen one another and produce a result greater than the sum of its parts.

2. The triggering of processes rather than predetermined outcomes. Urban acupuncture does not claim to control urbanization as a whole, but only targets neuralgic point with the capacity to act as catalysts. Negotiating bottom-up and top-down, such strategy relies on civic co-responsibility as much as municipal governance.

3. The need for rapid implementation. Only actual measures can produce immediate effects and allow for early evaluation and feedback. Thus incremental changes can absorb continuous re-adjustments and are less vulnerable to resistance and ultimately failure than big plans are.

Today Curitiba is probably most famous for its mobility and public transportation system that has been exported to other cities world-wide. Confronted with limited resources and fast population growth the municipality devised a Bus Rapid Transport System with dedicated arteries and traffic regulation, custom designed vehicles and transfer stations that ultimately achieves a similar performance (36.000 passengers every hour) than a subway system at only a fraction of its costs.

For our purpose trying to explain the idea of a relational approach to urbanism, what is more remarkable is that mobility was considered not as a means in itself, but as a key instrument to regulate building density and counteract urban sprawl. Thus zoning and land-use regulation was passed allowing only for higher building density in streets served by public transportation: Accordingly the urban silhouette would echo the modal split.
Years later the Australian traffic engineer Jeff Kennworthy has empirically confirmed the interdependency of population density and modal splits. This diagram shows the correlation between the per capita annual energy consumption for mobility and the density of inhabitants per hectare. Now interestingly enough the 50 cities he examined produce a clean curve with American cities on top, European in the middle and Asian on the bottom and an increasing rail based mobility. Meanwhile Curitiba represents an exception and is situated among the cities with a strong rail based mobility.
Boosting the bus network’s efficiency was essentially a design and traffic engineering problem. In the meantime its financing and operation required a more holistic understanding of urban issues. From the start Curitiba’s public mass transportation was conceived as private public partnership: whereas the city would provide the bus stations and roads, a series of private companies would supply the vehicles and operate singular lines. Independently of passenger numbers the city would pay the companies a fixed kilometer-fee proportional to the length of each route. In return the city would receive the passenger’s fares, thus being able to compensate less frequented routes and subsidize remote locations while providing equal services to all inhabitants at a flat rate. This set-up diminished private companies’ risk, yet turned the city into the beneficiary of extra profit.

The more inhabitants used public transport, the more money the city would be able to reinvest in new municipal projects. This cyclic mechanism would incite continuous improvements in order to make public transport ultimately more attractive then driving. Curitiba’s public transportation design thus ingeniously set-off a positive feed-back loop – a phenomenon essential for any self-organizing systems in natural or social sciences alike.

Returning to the notion of relational thinking beyond the metaphor of the needle, Acupuncture in contrary to western medicine always considers a condition in relation to the organism or system as a whole and its external influences. Similar to western medicine, it seems that urbanism has been increasingly compartmentalized into distinct areas of expertise while losing sight of the mutual effects. In Vienna this phenomenon manifest itself in the fragmentation of responsibilities distributed across numereous autonomeous Magistratsabteilungen, but also territorial demarcation between districts or between Vienna and State of Lower-Austria, that amongst other compete for sales taxes and thus encouraging the proliferation of shopping malls at the periphery.

Another example of synergetic benefits is the link between Curitiba’s public transport fares and its solid waste management program. Squatters in Curitiba, as in most fast-growing cities in Latin America, form dense informal settlements in areas such as hillsides and floodplains, where garbage collection trucks have nearly no access. In response to the alarming sanitation challenge, the city established central garbage collection points near favelas where residents could deposit their garbage. Here twice a week, residents that separate their refuse into organic and inorganic waste would receive bus tokens in exchange, thus increasing their mobility and income possibilities at no extra cost for the city or bus companies.

The waste management system brings us to the second theorem of focusing on the processes then final products. The bulk of investments for implementing the recycling program were channeled into educational projects in schools. Here urban planners and engineers understood that creating civic awareness with children might have a multiplier effect. Given toys made from recycled plastic in exchange for separated waste, the kids would go home and in turn educate their families of the benefits of waste management. More importantly it would plant a seed for civic co-responsibility that the young inhabitants might have for the quality of their urban environment.

In his essay of die Zwischenstadt, Thomas Sieverts argues that in order to tackle the condition of sprawl today we have to overcome a binary thinking of Nature vs. City, or landscape vs. the built environment and conceive of both as synthetic landscape—Kulturlandschaft. Following his argument and learning from Curitiba I am surprised that in Central European schools, kids are taught about natural systems but there is no dedicated subject teaching them to understand urban systems…

The third theorem claims the necessity of speed, thus also hinting at the potential of temporary interventions as a catalyst to set of processes of participation. Jaime Lerner, Curitiba’s long time mayor, soon realized that in addition to structural measures, of which the effects often take a long time to materialize and be perceived, there was a need for immediate results that people could experience. Thus in 1972, one year after taking office, on a Friday evening he started the lightning transformation of six inner city streets into Brazil’s first pedestrian zone that was inaugurated only 72 hours later. “Being a weak mayor, if I start to do it and take too long everyone could stop it through juridical demand” Lerner explains. The message was unambiguous: Curitiba should be a city for people, not for cars. “Within days impressed by the increase in their business, the once-critical shop owners were demanding an extension of the traffic-free zone that encompasses about 15 blocks today”. The strategy of testing the effects of specific ideas through quick and perhaps only temporary measures is finding increasing resonance in urban planning. The conversion of Times Square into a pedestrian area for instance, would have never been possible, unless it was introduced as a temporary experiment. Once in place however it was so successful that there was no possible return. Meanwhile the design and implementation of this transformation could happen gradually over time, benefiting also from the opportunity to make direct observations and learn from the situation in use before making long term decisions. In the common realization process of architecture post-occupancy observations are rarely made at all because they can’t be fed back into the actual design. However cause and effect relations in cities, between the built environment and human behavior are often unpredictable and thus an incremental approach to design and planning that includes testing ideas in reality, I believe could lead to more open and effective results.

Transcript of keynote presentation at the Architekturzentrum Wien on 2 March 2012, 7pm

Stefan Gruber is principal of Vienna based STUDIOGRUBER working at the intersection between architecture, urbanism and research. He is a professor for architectural design and urbanism at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, where he directs the Platform for Geography, Landscape, Cities. His teaching and research revolve around urban strategies based on focused interventions aiming at systemic effects through relational thinking. More recent work has been dedicated to issues of ownership and access.


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