Monday, June 24, 2013


Large cities like Johannesburg are increasingly becoming characterised by the presence of small-scale appropriations of urban space, known as “acupuncture points”. Clarissa van der Merwe investigates the modern trend of urban acupuncture and the influence it has on cities of the future. Urban acupuncture is an ideology that views the city as a living organism. The concept proposes that the intervention or renovation of one part of a city has a ripple effect on the greater city and community. 

Mokena Makeka, a renowned South African architect, says: “We have inherited infrastructure that is problematic and it is close to impossible to entirely change our cities.” However, Makeka also mentions that when people come together, amazing things are possible in public spaces, and that urban acupuncture will help to make these possibilities a reality. 

Cities have always played an essential role in the way people interact with the environment. In an ideal world, cities would be built in a way that would allow for the perfect symbiotic interaction between people and the environment. This is not the case in South Africa, as many of its cities suffer from urban decay and neglect of previously popular, majestic buildings and spaces. 

Urban acupuncture is a realistic means of revamping cities in a way that would allow a community of people to come together and use their surroundings to their own benefit. Space is limited in cities and urban acupuncture will allow forgotten, run-down spaces to be recreated and reused. It is important for city planners to understand this approach, as it is an effective way to make minor improvements in order to achieve greater good. 

The greater good refers to the empowerment of communities by creating economically active citizens in providing them with infrastructure previously lacking in their environments. Developers and planners often neglect to keep in mind that, when new communities are developed, other facilities like schools, churches and shops are needed in order to make the community itself flourish, as opposed to simply developing another “settlement” where the community still needs to travel 20 km to the nearest school or grocery store. 

“In the same way that one acupuncture needle can influence the overall health of a body, we believe that a single key project in a community can work to create a positive ripple effect to help the entire affected community in its recovery process.” 

The proper application of urban acupuncture can also lead to environmental conservation, as only small areas of land are used for smaller projects. Furthermore, the emission of greenhouse gasses will be reduced as people would not have to travel very far away from their homes for shopping and recreation. 

The concept of urban acupuncture, although not a new concept internationally, has only recently been adopted in South Africa. The pioneers of urban acupuncture in the country are Mokena Makeka, with his many projects in Cape Town, such as the development of the Museum of Design, Innovation, Leadership and Art (MoDILA) and Propertuity, a firm led by Jonathan Liebman, who developed the Maboneng Precinct in the east of Johannesburg. 

 A social theorist and architect, Professor Marco Casagrande, describes urban acupuncture as: "Cross-over architectural manipulation of the collective sensuous intellect of a city. The city is viewed as a multi-dimensional sensitive energy-organism, a living environment. Urban acupuncture aims to be in touch with this nature and sensitivity to understand the energy flows of the collective chi beneath the visual city and reacting on the hot-spots of this chi. Architecture is in the position to produce the acupuncture needles for the urban chi. A weed will root into the smallest crack in the asphalt and eventually break the city. Urban acupuncture is the weed and the acupuncture point is the crack. The possibility of the impact is total, connecting human nature as part of nature.” 

The winner of the Deutsche Bank Urban Age Award (DBUAA) Cape Town 2012 was the “Mothers Unite” project, which demonstrates the power of urban acupuncture. Mothers Unite was founded in 2007 and provides a safe haven from the gangsterism, drugs and violence that form part of street and home life in the area. Built with shipping containers, the village is made up of a library, kitchen, office, sheltered area, playground and food garden. 

The theory of urban acupuncture opens the door for creativity and freedom. Each citizen is enabled to join the creative participatory planning process, feel free to use city space for any purpose and develop his environment according to his will. This new city is characterised by sensitive citizens who feel the calling of sustainable co-operation with the rest of the nature, and who are aware of the destruction that the insensitive modern machine is causing to the environment and human nature. In a larger context, a site of urban acupuncture can be viewed as communicating to the city outside like a natural sign of life in a city programmed to subsume it. 

Read more about the Maboneng Precinct in the main “Refurbs and Renovations” feature, elsewhere in this issue. 

Where did urban acupuncture originate? 
Urban acupuncture is the brainchild of the Finnish architect, Professor Marco Casagrande, who developed the theory at the Tamkang University of Taiwan. The theory came about when he was invited by the Taipei City Government to study an urban farming community enclave Treasure Hill within the city, where he noticed a great potential of human energy. 

Full thanks and acknowledgement are given to www.mabonengprecint . com, and the Harvard Business Review for the information provided to write this article.

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