Dec. 29 2015 06:08 PM

Pinprick improvements are at least a start for a lagging city

spin123015
Is Jaime Lerner’s “urban acupuncture” the remedy San Diego needs?
Photo illustration by John R. Lamb

    If you didn't hear champagne corks popping last week when the San Diego City Council adopted a nationally recognized, aggressive Climate Action Plan, you weren't alone. Much like a piece of divinity, the achievement seemed heavy on sugar, light on substance.

    But hey, that sounds so negative, so...well...2015. In a year that was dominated by acidic talk of a mediocre NFL team pulling up 50-plus years' worth of stakes and potentially moving the circus tent to a landfill just south of Los Angeles, the concept of action seems like some quaint notion of a bygone era.

    By year's end, what really was there to cheer about as a San Diegan? What tangible accomplishment jumps out? For Spin Cycle, 2015 in the rearview mirror appears as a blur, a time of promise that seemed intent on settling for mediocrity.

    Can we do better in 2016? The coming slap fights between dominant political parties in a presidential election year might suggest that our leaders will be too busy burnishing their own credentials, offering more promises with long shelf lives. Does it have to be this way?

    Perhaps San Diego should take a page from Seinfeld's George Costanza and "do the opposite," in other words, take our usual molasses pace ethos and flip it on its head. A recent conversation with San Diego's former city architect, Michael Stepner, got Spin Cycle thinking about 2016 and what can be accomplished short-term.

    Stepner, now a professor of urban design at East Village's New School of Architecture & Design, suggested that San Diego might think about adopting the philosophy of Brazilian urban planner Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba, a city once considered third world in nature that is now the envy of many seekers of municipal sustainability.

    His TED conference bio page lists him as "city evangelist," an apt description of a man who transformed a traffic-choked commercial street "into a spacious pedestrian mall over a long weekend," his bio notes. He also implemented a program that allows citizens to swap bags of trash for bags of groceries, introduced an effective rapid-bus system and employed sheep to maintain the city's expanded parkland.

    Call it "blitz urbanism" or his preferred "urban acupuncture," the concept comes down to a simple notion: Make small "pinprick" improvements in communities that inspire residents, build trust with government leaders and lift spirits.

    In 2007, Lerner described it this way: "I believe that some medicinal 'magic' can and should be applied to cities, as many are sick and some nearly terminal. As with the medicine needed in the interaction between doctor and patient, in urban planning it is also necessary to make the city react—to poke an area in such a way that it is able to help heal, improve, and create positive chain reactions."

    Spin decided to reach out to some smart local people in hopes of discovering some "pinprick" ideas that could be implemented in 2016—projects that could bring residents back to the street level and away from the tiresome rarified air of what billionaires want.

    Some ideas seem less than easy. Stepner, for example, touted an effort he and a group of design professionals are kicking around that they call "Heal the Gash." The idea is to deck over sections of Interstate 5 that would reconnect East Village to Balboa Park, Sherman Heights and Barrio Logan.

    This is not a new idea, Stepner acknowledged, and the price tag for such endeavors are said to stretch into the hundreds of millions.

    But he and artist/designer Roy McMakin, who now calls San Diego home, both echoed a similar sentiment—plant more trees. "How about planting more street trees in every empty, existing tree hole?" McMakin wondered. "In other words, no need to do any concrete infrastructure work. Just dig holes and water. Then you have a prettier, more pedestrian and bird-friendly city."

    Urban planner Howard Blackson suggested the city could address its growing homeless problem by entering into a "memo of understanding" with local homeless-advocacy agencies to provide "basic human services" like "portable restrooms, bathing and shelter facilities" on public streets.

    "This simple paper agreement," Blackson argued, "is intended to transform our first response to homelessness from being a crime into a humanitarian effort"—similar to efforts post-Katrina in New Orleans and post-Sandy in New Jersey—"in order to get our people off the streets and into homes in a streamlined and morally responsive, rather than combative, manner."

    Gregory Morales, who is running a low-budget campaign for mayor, also suggested that publicly owned land and buildings could be used for emergency housing, "somewhat like a bivouac...organized and laid out like a military camp with central kitchen/mess, and sanitary facilities."

    Perhaps even low-performing hotels and motels could gain tax breaks by providing transitional or even permanent housing for military veterans, Morales suggested.

    Spin also asked for ideas from City Council offices, and two—those of Marti Emerald and Sherri Lightner—responded.

    Emerald's office pointed to several past and ongoing projects that would qualify as "urban acupuncture," including canyon-land restoration in City Heights, establishment of community gardens, construction of the Ocean Discovery Institute Living Lab next to Joyner Elementary School in City Heights, and various "take back the alley" efforts.

    Lightner's office noted that how the old Central Library downtown is reused could be a vital "pinprick" project. A spokesperson said the council president's "top choices would be an educational use or something for high-tech/innovation, such as a maker's space."

    In her district, Lightner is also monitoring a proposal to create an ocean-view public plaza at the intersection of Prospect and Girard in La Jolla.

    These are all great ideas for a town that could surely use some great ideas. But Spin wants to hear more—looking at you, dear reader! For 2016, Spin won't promise to be any less prickly, but perhaps a little "urban acupuncture" among friends will help us rinse 2015's relative year of inaction and ineptitude from our psyches.

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