Urban acupuncture is a design tactic promoting urban regeneration at a local level, supporting the idea that interventions in public space don’t need to be ample and expensive to have a transformative impact. An alternative to conventional development processes, urban acupuncture represents an adaptable framework for urban renewal, where highly focused and targeted initiatives help regenerate neglected spaces, incrementally deploy urban strategies, or consolidate the social infrastructure of a city.
Drawing from the metaphor of the Chinese traditional medical practice, urban acupuncture refers to the improvement of social and urban issues through precise interventions that revitalize areas of the city, and consolidate urban planning strategies. First coined by Spanish architect Manuel de Solà, the concept circumscribes projects with a high degree of reversibility, allowing for corrective measures and improvements. The tactic has the advantage of being a fast-tracked planning, thus being implemented swiftly and often with modest means. With less bureaucratic requirements, these localized gestures can trigger a chain reaction of improvement in the quality of the adjacent urban environment, from an increase in social cohesion to an improvement in public safety.
Three times mayor of Curitiba, architect and urban planner Jaime Lerner is one of the lead advocates of urban acupuncture, seeing it as a means to bring immediate improvements to the urban environment, bypassing long decision –making processes and surpassing economic impediments. As he sees it, “the lack of resources is no longer an excuse not to act. The idea that action should only be taken after all the answers and the resources have been found is a sure recipe for paralysis”. It is worth mentioning at this point that urban acupuncture is a multi-scalar tactic, with projects varying in size, from a re-organization of a corner street to the implementation of new transport lines. However, for this article, the examples will focus on localized interventions, that despite their relatively small scale have a significant positive effect on their surroundings.
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A Testing Ground
The tactic of urban acupuncture is employed by various stakeholders in the city, including municipalities, as means to implement broader urban strategies iteratively, with actions that are quick to deploy, temporary, and for the most part low cost. In its plan to pedestrianize large parts of the city, by defining areas with limited vehicle access, called “superblocks”, Barcelona first implemented the transformation using reversible and inexpensive means, intending to test out the validity of the superblock strategy. The progressive interventions and provisional solutions were meant to be consolidated in a second phase. For the Sant Antoni Superblock, Leku Studio was tasked with the design of a toolkit of adaptive furniture, graphic elements and a deployment methodology for the incremental implementation of the urban transformation inside the superblock.
Nature in Small Packages
Although there is an increasing awareness of the lack of green spaces in the urban environments, the construction of new parks is an insurmountable challenge for most cities lacking the land and the financial resources for such feats. Defined by their small scale and community focus, pocket parks and community gardens are a relatively inexpensive investment in the urban environment, with interventions often occupying leftover spaces in the city and concentrating the efforts of local organizations and community groups. These interventions are proven to have significant benefits for the mental health of citizens and to increase urban safety (as one research notes a reduction in gun crime in the proximity of such projects) sparking a chain of further improvements in the area.
Reclaiming Underused Space
Underused spaces within the urban environment can become well-performing parts of the city life with careful programming and the addition of physical elements. An unappealing place under a skyway in central Moscow became a point of attraction on the city’s social map after it was converted into a skate-spot. The collaboration between Strelka KB, Strelka Architects, and Snøhetta resulted in the transformation of the small place into a platform for beginner skaters. Surprisingly, the location proved to be quite advantageous, as the shelter provided by the overpass makes the skate-spot accessible all year round. Similarly, Level up is a small-scale intervention on the banks of the Danube in Rijeka, that adapts a disused rooftop, creating a meeting and event space for the locals. An adaptive re-use project, the pavilion was a first step towards reviving the area which was meant to become an essential venue during Rijeka’s time as EU’s cultural capital.
Catering to the Needs of Communities
Many acupunctural interventions in the public space are centred around providing a space for citizens to congregate. Designed by AIM Architecture in collaboration with URBAN MATTERS, Urban Bloom transforms a parking lot in Shanghai into a different kind of urban garden, creating an undulating landscape that can encompass an array of scenarios, from casual gatherings, to mini-lectures or outdoor theatre. Similarly, The Green Cloud project by ZHUBO DESIGN aims to activate unused space within an urban island, providing a green and pleasant commonplace for local residents.
What qualifies the following project as urban acupuncture is precisely its hyper-locality and the broader strategy it serves in adapting the public space to a new, temporary reality. The TULIP installation by ADHOC architects adds a social component to an existing park in Montreal, accommodating the new requirements inflicted by the pandemic on urban life. The project allows citizens to re-appropriate the urban space while respecting sanitation norms and transforms the narrow strip of land into an urban terrace. The installation is one of three public spaces redesigned in the Canadian city, in an effort to restart urban life.
Urban acupuncture is a granular type of investment in the city that acknowledges the different realities and sensitivities of the local urban and social fabrics. The tactic provides decision-makers with a sustainable way of addressing urban development, immediately and incrementally, while being mindful with the available resources.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Tiny. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics here. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.