In Qianhai, Corner’s strategy was based on three criteria: water-quality improvement, transportation, and building neighborhoods. “Of the other invited entries,” Corner says, “none of them dealt with environmental issues; they were all just to do with creating cool cities.”

This alternative strategy demands that designers relinquish the idea that architecture equals an autonomous building. “You don’t make cities from individual buildings,” Prior argues. “You make them from the infrastructure and organization of place, and as we understand more about the sustainability of cities, then starting with a robust position on how these city systems work in relationship to the natural environment and relationships to the anticipated community, we find ourselves upstream from the actual building.”

Earlier this year, Lars Müller Publishers released the book Ecological Urbanism, edited by GSD dean Mohsen Mostafavi and doctoral candidate Gareth Doherty. The hefty tome provides a framework for much of this thinking. In his introduction, Mostafavi voices support for the landscape urbanist approach, since sustainable design remains limited if LEED certification, for example, “deals primarily with the architectural object, and not with the larger infrastructure of the territory of our cities and towns.” Signaling widespread interest in this agenda, the editors assembled an impressive roster of contributors who attempt to reconcile urban design and theory with ecology.

In the U.S., this change in scale is beginning to be implemented in places such as the Gulf region, where the magnitude of the crisis has challenged most design proposals. Following Hurricane Katrina, a number of competitions and studies investigated new architectural projects that could withstand environmental catastrophe. Well-intentioned though they were, these proposals lacked the scale sufficient to address a regional issue.

Now, landscape strategies are beginning to emerge. New York’s Van Alen Institute, for example, is partnering with the Environmental Defense Fund to develop strategies for the New Orleans coastal delta region that endeavor not to make a series of hurricane-resistant houses, but to treat the issue as the far-reaching ecology that it is. When considering that same geography, back in 2001, long before Katrina, landscape architects Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha published Mississippi Floods; its subtitle, “Designing a Shifting Landscape,” highlights one of the hallmark distinctions of landscape architecture: conditions change.

Change is one of the tenets of landscape urbanism, too. Chris Reed, founding principal at Boston-based Stoss Landscape Urbanism, explains that the discipline begins by “understanding how things do change—not just that the vegetation grows, but that entire ecosystems change.”

Bat Yam, Israel, a small city just south of Tel Aviv, seized on this concept in launching the International Biennale of Landscape Urbanism two years ago. This year, with “timing” as its theme, the program presents exhibitions and installations that look for ways to transform urban spaces affected by vacancy, construction, or even dereliction, acknowledging the temporary opportunities presented by those sites.

Growing pains

Old enough to drive but not yet fully mature, the field is still refining its approach and identity. One issue that even the field’s vocal advocates will acknowledge is that it deals with landscape at the expense of urbanism—in other words, that ecology trumps development patterns, socioeconomic trends, and other urban considerations.

“Generally, I’m a proponent of landscape urbanism, since it has contributed to the idea that cities evolve over time, and to the idea of interdisciplinarity,” explains Roger Sherman, director of the CityLAB at the University of California in Los Angeles. “But it needs to look more closely at the urbanism side of the equation. Nature changes by natural forces, and cities do too, but the forces and the logics by which cities change are fundamentally different [from] natural forces.”

Sherman, author of the recently published book L.A. Under the Influence: The Hidden Logic of Urban Property, thinks urban designers should consider how “processes of urban development might be thought of in similar ways as ... ecological processes.”

Some critics are more outspoken. “They have aestheticized landscapes,” says the prominent New Urbanist Andrés Duany. “But no one actually walks in that stuff.” He dismisses the rise of the approach as political maneuvering to snatch up competition wins and academic positions. “It ain’t that hard,” Duany says, “but they’ve developed this exquisite vocabulary.”

Pointing out that New Urbanists work mostly in medium- and small-sized cities, not large ones, he observes, “It’s exactly like the Vietnam War: Those who control the cities cannot control the countryside, and those who control the countryside have a difficult time controlling the cities—unless they kill everybody.” But he is willing to learn from the other side. “I have an attorney going through all their material to extract all their vocabulary.” Waldheim, for his part, argues that New Urbanism suffers from a “fundamental inability to deal with contemporary culture.”

Landscape urbanism may traffic in complex systems, environmental science, and large-scale master plans, but it continues to be, at its core, about creating vibrant public spaces—not so unlike the landscape architecture of old. “Parks and gardens and streetscapes are well understood, important contributors to sustainable city- and place-making,” explains AECOM’s Prior. “[Successful public spaces] are being seen more and more as an essential ingredient of making successful cities—successful places, where there is life and vitality.”