Karen C. Seto

Karen C. Seto

Frederick C. Hixon Professor of Geography and Urbanization Science

  • YSE Faculty

Karen Seto is the Frederick C. Hixon Professor of Geography and Urbanization Science at the Yale School of the Environment. She is an urban and land change scientist whose central research focus is how urbanization will affect the planet. A geographer by training, she integrates remote sensing, field interviews, and modeling methods to study urbanization and land change, forecast urban growth, and examine the environmental consequences of urban expansion. She is an expert in satellite remote sensing analysis and has pioneered methods to reconstruct historical land-use and to develop empirical models to explain and forecast the expansion of urban areas. Seto is a specialist in contemporary urbanization in China and India, where she has conducted research for over 20 and 10 years, respectively. Her research is notable for its systematic use of big data and a scientific lens to study urbanization as a process and to understand the aggregate global impacts of urbanization. Seto’s research has generated new insights on the interaction between urbanization and food systems, the effects of urban expansion on biodiversity and cropland loss, urban energy use and emissions, and urban mitigation of climate change. 

Professor Seto is one of the world's leading experts on contemporary urbanization and global change, and has served on numerous national and international scientific bodies. She is co-leading the urban mitigation chapter for the IPCC 6th Assessment Report and co-lead the same chapter for the IPCC 5th Assessment Report. She is co-editor-in-chief of the journal, Global Environmental Change. She co-founded and co-chaired the global research project, Urbanization and Global Environmental Change (UGEC), formerly of the International Human Dimensions Programme (IHDP) and Future Earth, from 2006 to 2016.  She has served on numerous U.S. National Research Council (NRC) Committees, including the NRC Committee to the Advise the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the NRC Committee on Pathways to Urban Sustainability. From 2002 to 2008, she was the Global Thematic Leader for Ecosystem Management Tools for the Commission on Ecosystem Management of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

She is committed to improving public understanding of an urbanizing planet. She was the Executive Producer of “10,000 Shovels: Rapid Urban Growth in China,” a documentary film that integrates satellite imagery, historical photographs, and contemporary film footage to highlight the urban changes occurring in China. Her book, City Unseen, co-authored with Meredith Reba, uses satellite imagery to show how cities shape landscapes and how landscapes shape cities. Professor Seto has received numerous awards for her scientific contributions. She is the recipient of a NASA New Investigator Program Award, a NSF Career Award, a National Geographic Research Grant, and the Outstanding Contributions to Remote Sensing Research Award from the American Association of Geographers. She was named an Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow in 2009. She is an elected member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She earned a PhD in Geography from Boston University.

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.

I want to train the next generation of geographers and urban scientists. Just as the invention of the microscope provided a new lens to view science, modern geographic tools such as remote sensing, big data, and spatial analysis provide a fresh perspective on the world, urban areas, and the relationship between urbanization and the environment.

My teaching philosophy rests on three tenets: integrating students in research, developing writing skills, and fostering systems thinking. My approach to education mirrors my research: I emphasize interdisciplinary training that is hands-on and cutting-edge. I find mentoring and teaching students fulfilling because it offers an opportunity for me to engage and collaborate with the next generation of scholars and leaders. 

I offer a range of classes, from technical courses on urban remote sensing and digital image processing to seminars on urban mitigation of climate change. 


B.A. University of California, Santa Barbara;
M.A., Ph.D. Boston University

This professor is accepting doctoral students