Karen C. Seto

Professor of Geography and Urbanization; Associate Dean of Research

Research Overview

My research focuses on four broad themes: 1) Monitoring and measuring urbanization dynamics, including growth patterns and urban form; 2) Understanding the process of urbanization; 3) Assessing the environmental impacts of urban land-use change; and 4) Forecasting urban growth.

Monitoring and Measuring Urbanization Dynamics

Imaging of Earth by NASA’s Landsat satellites over the past three decades has revolutionized how we monitor and map our planet. My research in this area focuses on understanding and characterizing urban land-use change patterns. How are urban areas changing? What landscapes are being lost to urban expansion? How do the rates and magnitudes of urban land-use change vary across time and space?

Understanding the Process of Urbanization

Urban land-use change is a function of complex interactions among multiple drivers, ranging from local policies to international capital flows. My research focuses on understanding the causes behind urban expansion. What drives urban land-use change and urban form? How do these factors interact and what are their relative and collective importance in causing urban development? Why do we see similar patterns of urban land-use change across regions and cultures?

Evaluating the Environmental Impacts of Urban Growth

As urban areas expand, they impact the environment across all scales, from the local to the global. In many areas, urban expansion occurs at the expense of fertile agricultural land. In other regions, urban development envelops wildlife habitat. Everywhere, urban land-use change modifies the interaction between the land surface and atmosphere. How does urban land-use change affect the demand for energy and other natural resources? What are the implications of a rapidly urbanizing Earth for land conservation and biodiversity?

Forecasting Urban Growth

By 2050, the world urban population is expected reach 6.5 billion. Where is urban land-use change likely to occur in the future? How will the global configuration of urban settlements change in the next forty years? Because every aspect of urban land-use has significant environmental implications, forecasting scenarios and patterns of urban land-use change will be critical for the conservation of energy resources, the preservation of agricultural land, and ultimately, environmental sustainability.