Stephen Goldsmith is director of the Center for the Living City and an associate professor at the University of Utah. Through a partnership with Knight Foundation the center is publishing an English edition of “Urban Acupuncture,” a guide to help civic leaders tackle community challenges written by Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil. Photo credit: Chelsea Gauthier.
One of Lerner’s many legacies is his attention to streets, their multiple uses, their democracy, and as urban activist Jane Jacobs described them, “the ballet of the sidewalks.” Our observations, magnified by contrast with the auto-dependent North American cities where my students live, were about to become part of our conversation with Lerner. Today, Lerner is an internationally renowned architect, working with a team of young practitioners in an office he refers to as “a clinic.” He consults on projects in cities worldwide, and 15 of my university students from multiple disciplines had been invited for coffee with him to talk about urban ecology. As we rounded the corner to his building, elegant as it was modest, we were about to have a transformative conversation.
Stepping into the boardroom dappled with light through walls of windows, we were at once reminded of Lerner’s love of design. Sculpture, paintings, furniture, books, a well-worn wooden conference table, the scale of the room, the smell of coffee, this room was now set as a stage for star-struck students to talk about the dramatic differences they observed on the streets of Curitiba. They had seen films about the city, but today there was a palpable sense of connection to Curitiba and its people. When Lerner walked into the room, his warm voice welcoming us as fellow workers, we began collecting wisdom and memories.
“Don’t,” insisted Lerner, “get stuck in your own bureaucracies.” Getting mired in the inertia of municipal planning practice was something he knew how to avoid, and his legendary transformation of Rua XV de Novembro (15th of November Street) is an iconic example. Lerner wanted to turn this auto-centric street into a people-centered place and, not wanting to wait for a lengthy study and design process to interfere with his experiment, ordered his public works department to close the street and pave it with cobblestones the following weekend. The street has been closed to automobiles ever since, and is a bustling place of commerce and culture. It is also an example of Lerner’s concept of “Urban Acupuncture,” which is the title of Lerner’s book being published this fall with support from Knight Foundation.