Distraction Free Reading

Urban Acupuncture Design Theory: Researching New Development Practices in South Africa

Sometimes it only takes a “spark,” a “simple, focused intervention,” a “single stroke of genius,” or “the single prick of a needle” to release the flows and create new energies. This is the defining assumption of “urban acupuncture,” an urban design theory that has become very popular among socially engaged architects and urban planners in recent years. Urban acupuncture borrows from traditional Chinese medicine to analogously think about, and also treat, the existing urban fabric as a living body with flows and blockages, wounds, and pain. Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba in Brazil, urban planner, architect, and whose book Urban Acupuncture (2014) I have paraphrased here in the first line, is perhaps its most prominent proponent. For Lerner, anything from a rapid bus transit system in Curitiba, a river revitalization in Seoul, the restoration of an old cinema in Paraná, the Park Güell in Barcelona, to even Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao museum can activate “the magic of medicine” for ailing and scarred cities.

Cape Town, where I do my own field research on social housing and infrastructure development, is considered one of these ailing cities. The city bears the deep scars of apartheid’s racial segregation and political violence, as well as the continuous dispossessions and displacements of its black, mostly unemployed working-class. While Cape Town is one of the most unequal and divided cities on the planet, it is also among the most innovative global cities and “Africa’s smartest city.” Brimming over with renewal efforts, development trials, and housing experiments, I chose Cape Town to study the paradoxes, conflicts, and often well-meant intentions of innovative urban developments. “Urban acupuncture” strikes me as one of these concepts with which to describe and also problematize the urban projects I encountered in the city and propose to research in the future.

Since the late 1990s, the term is in wide circulation and captures many of the scalability dimensions of housing initiatives and development trials. Most of the leading activists and socially engaged architects, some of whom I met in Cape Town, also frame and promote their projects through urban acupuncture. The term was first used in the writings of Manuel de Solà-Morales in Barcelona (Deyong 2012; Solà-Morales 2008). Considering the city as a living organism and energy system, it broadly defines small-scale interventions that have ripple effects and bring about positive change and healing on a more holistic urban scale (Navarro-Sertich 2011; Deyong 2012; Houghton et al. 2015). For example, urban acupuncture can be a slum upgrading project that improves living conditions without having to displace people (Navarro-Sertich 2011). It can also be a type of place activation and reinvigoration which involves citizens and planners (Houghton et al. 2015). Teddy Cruz, another of its widely-known proponents, describes it as a slow and incremental development method that helps to heal the housing crisis.

Three figures of humans side by side. Each figure wears a different hat. Inside the body contour of each figure one can see urban maps with different places highlighted or colored.

Figure 1: Copyright Permission granted by Zhang Yimeng. Master Thesis: Rethinking the Dimension in Urban Acupuncture

It is a tactic/strategy that does not require a tabula rasa or test-bed urbanism, as for example in Brasília (Holston 1989), Songdo (Halpern et al. 2013), Masdar City (Günel 2019), or in the new $500 billion-proposal “The Line” put forward by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia. Orit Halpern and co-authors (2013) define “test-bed urbanism” as the testing of new technologies and theories in controlled large-scale urban experiments (Halpern et al. 2013). Urban acupunctures, however, insert change into already existing urban fabrics, are more participatory, collaborative, and small-scale-oriented, and mindful of cost and resource expenses. Thus, an urban acupuncturist, like Lerner, operates very differently from a modernist surgeon like Corbusier (Holston 1989: 48).

How applicable is the bodily metaphor of acupuncture for urban design? What does it imply if architects and urban planners treat the city as an organism, skin, or body? What does this tell us about scalability and attempts for long-term urban renewal? Can urban acupuncture interventions create and foster rights to the city? Or are they only another type of band-aid or magic bullet for a southern urbanism that would need a more systematic overhaul? With these critical questions in mind, I will briefly discuss two examples of urban acupuncture – two non-governmental urban developments that I encountered during my field research in South Africa.

Housing Innovation, Participatory Architectures, and Scalability

In 2019, I went on multiple site visits to an incremental housing project called Empower Shack. Empower Shack is located roughly 40 km outside of Cape Town on its windy and sandy Cape Flats in Khayelitsha, one of Africa’s fastest-growing urban settlements. With its bright yellow façade colors and new reflecting zinc walls, this newly designed double-story housing project stood out sharply from its surroundings of makeshift structures made of wooden polls, plastic sheeting, old zinc, and cardboard as well as from the standardized single-story Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) houses. Unprecedented in its scale and ambition, the Mandela and then Thabo Mbeki government built almost four million of these heavily state-subsidized RDP houses since 1994. In collaboration with community leaders and the locally based NGO Ikhayalami, Urban-Think Tank (or U-TT) has been working on the Empower Shack project as a more cost- and time-effective and adaptable design alternative to the RDP house. U-TT is a small international team of urban planners, artists, and architects that has become widely known for their cable car interventions and vertical gyms in Venezuela, Brazil, and Colombia. Ikhayalami, their partner organization in Cape Town, is a spatial planning NGO that helps with settlement upgrading and pre- and post-disaster-assistance for marginalized and under-served communities that are particularly threatened by Cape Town’s notorious summer shack fires and winter flooding.

Six bright yellow double-story houses facing a road. Someone is painting red lines to decorate them. People are walking down the street near these houses.

Figure 2: The newly-built double-story units in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Photo by author.

As long-time NGO director Andy Bolnick stated when Professor Steven Robins and I interviewed her at the end of July 2019: “The idea is to develop an innovative technical response to informal settlements that can be quick and easy, replicable, and simple and affordable to implement.” In other words, the housing project can be read as an urban acupuncture that does not displace its long-time residents. It comes with the ambition to activate the place and incrementally improve residents’ living conditions. It is a small-scale intervention, the size of one neighborhood block with 72 units, that is meant to have large-scale impacts on its immediate surroundings and as a replicable prototype.

In most participatory design projects, like Empower Shack, “scale” refers to the demand for low-income, cheap and sustainable housing and to the need of real human users, but also to the fact that tiny experiments can be replicated over time. This latter meaning of scale for projects with human scales but huge effects has found a number of new urbanist and architectural followers. The 2010 MOMA exhibition Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement presented eleven projects from around the world, mostly in the urban south, that aim to work against the forces of globalization and for more social commitment. Among the projects are, for example, Francis Kéré’s Gando Primary School in Burkina Faso, Alejandro Aravena’s Quinta Monroy Housing in Chile, Urban-Think Tank’s Metro Cable in Caracas, or Teddy Cruz’ Casa Familiar in San Ysidro, California. Each project comes with “small endeavors” that can have “great consequences” (ibid. 12). Although these consequences would certainly have to be ethnographically studied and evaluated in each and every case, all these participatory architectures are described as “small-scale interventions” with “outsize influence on life in rural Alabama, the outskirts of Paris, or a barrio in Caracas,” as Barry Bergdoll concluded in the introduction to the MOMA exhibition catalog.

Development Devices, Pandemic Architectures, and Infrastructural Marginality

While paging through other similar architecture and design volumes, such as Design With the Other 90%: Cities (2011), Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism (2008), and Design Like You Give a Damn (2006), I was surprised to find the same projects, such as Urban-Think Tank’s “vertical gyms” and Alejandro Aravena’s “half of a good house,” over and over again. However, I was also amazed to encounter dozens of “little development devices,” as they are more closely and critically examined in the anthropology online journal limn, issue No. 9. Waste recycling, slum upgrading, refugee shelters, sandbag houses, locally-fabricated panels, eco-bricks, grassroots mapping, favela painting projects, motor-taxi helmets, bicycle phone chargers, garden-in-a-sack, schools on wheels, and many other objects such as water meters and solar lanterns are among the products introduced in these volumes. Most of them are decentralized micro-technologies, small-scale solutions, that are meant to alleviate suffering and to provide minimalist forms of care in the absence of state capacity or anticipation of state failure; what Peter Redfield also calls “the smallest anti-politics machine” (2012, 2016). These devices are meant to target populations understood to be “infrastructurally marginal—lacking connection to networked forms of modern provisioning” at a time “when modernist utopian projects lose their grip on collective imagination,” writes the author collective of limn (2017).

During these pandemic times, I wonder whether all the new protected bike lanes, outdoor dining dwellings, plexiglass barriers, university tents, prefabricated hospitals, new landscaping, enlarged interiors and office spaces, and multiple other pop-up architectures can be added to this extensive and proliferating list of devices.

In 2016, for my Master’s field research in a cordoned-off settlement area next to the Stellenbosch campus in South Africa, I familiarized myself with one such device – the iShack: a non-governmental initiative that installs off-grid solar electricity panels for individual households. Providing residents with only enough energy to charge their phones, run a small TV and a light bulb, or occasionally plug in some kitchen devices but nothing like a fridge or oven, the iShack was seen by the project developers as an alternative ecological future. It was deemed a suitable solution to help people get by in the meantime while they were waiting for grid infrastructure to arrive. More recently, Peter Redfield has termed these provisional, small-scale projects “meantime products,” these are provisional arrangements that offer small improvements, with limited impact and “modest designs” (2019). As I spoke with and accompanied some of the “iShack agents” – locally hired and trained technicians and installers – it quickly became clear that the project also faced local discontent and created many predicaments. It hindered people from aspiring to infrastructure’s modernity in the long-run as much as it induced complex social relationships between those who help and those who are being helped.

Roofs of informal settlement houses with small rectangular solar panels installed on them.

Figure 3: iShack solar panels in the Siqalo settlements on the Cape Flats, another more recent implementation site. Source: VPUU

Critical Conclusions

What most of these development devices, incremental upgradings, and participatory infrastructures, like the iShack and Empower Shack, have in common is not only their anti-modernist stance and small-scale orientation, but often their moral ambiguity, which can range from being neocolonial, humanitarian, playing savior, to being genuinely active, participatory, and activist. This makes them particularly hard to place and evaluate from the outside. These activist and humanitarian projects also share the attempt to address various priorities and real user needs, whether of ecological, philanthropic, anti-criminal, economic, infrastructural, or social nature. They address and mobilize different scales, networks, and target groups to fight against different social injustices. At least, these are the good intentions in theory; the capacities, budgets, and institutional frameworks are often more limited in reality.

As adequate as the term “urban acupuncture” might be to capture the multi-scalar dimensions of contemporary participatory architectures, it made me wonder whether urban acupunctures are only another “peacemaker for the neoliberal city,” as Isabelle Doucet (2015) described consensus-driven participatory architectures. It made me ask whether these projects tend to foster entrepreneurial and humanitarian ethics: Are they experimenting with urban poor communities in the urban south as their participatory laboratories? Are they relying on small budgets and innovative tactics because they are not capable of addressing broader issues of inequality and state neglect? Are they framing the urban as in necessity of generic healing? Perhaps all of it.

My partner, who is a certified acupuncturist of traditional Chinese medicine, reminded me of another fundamental aspect that some of the urban planners, engaged architects, and active proponents of urban acupuncture might have misunderstood or sometimes forgotten: “the points and needles are only the last things you attend to. First, there needs to be rapport and a therapeutic relationship. One needs an understanding of the ills, the story, the terrain of the patient. Without this background, you are just treating symptoms.”


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