Thinking Through Sustainable Urban Design

Patty Heyda

Spotlight: Patty Heyda | Sam Fox School of Architecture

Contributed by Bennett Rosenberg on November 25, 2020.

Urbanization is unsustainable if it does not address the fundamental causes of climate change. Suburban lifestyles dependent on fossil fuels, sprawl, resistance to transit and density, and ongoing forms of urban renewal churn out massive amounts of waste and pollution, demand vast amounts of resources, and disrupt environmental and social ecosystems. If unaddressed, these patterns are only going to get worse. By 2050, more than two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas, including cities and their far-reaching metro areas. Urban planners face a tough predicament given the trends of urbanization and climate change. They must design equitable, liveable cities that are not only economically viable but also environmentally just and sustainable.


Patty Heyda, an Associate Professor in urban design and architecture at the Sam Fox School, dives into these questions that link urban design to decision-making processes fueling growth amid unequal economic and political relations and interests.  How climate change issues are addressed depends a lot on whether people introduce new ways of thinking into these processes. This is where design comes in.

Heyda emphasizes the critical importance of systems in her design research. For instance, when considering a vacant lot, her work does not begin with designing a building to fill in the gap. Instead, she reviews the underlying political-economic scene. What factors drove this lot to vacancy? What is the role of the private and public sectors here? Who has been most affected? How can design facilitate healing and address social and environmental problems?

As a critical part of studying urban change in America, Heyda researches the relationship between private interests and public development. In Houston, for instance, wealthy energy companies headquartered there donate large sums towards public projects for green, high-quality infrastructure that can mitigate flooding induced by climate-warming events and that clean the contaminated water.  Where many urban actors embrace this model of public-private partnership, Heyda sees a fundamental contradiction since the energy industry itself—despite philanthropy—is one of the largest contributors to emissions causing the contamination and climate change needing mitigation in the first place. Heyda highlights the dependence of public planners on private actors, arguing that “cities are intractably reliant on private capital, and this relationship does not always lead to the climate solutions we need.”

In her book Rebuilding the American City, Heyda examines 15 different US cities and surveys how they change. Each city has a unique political-economic landscape to navigate, with varying roadblocks in infrastructure, social needs, economic ceilings, environmental hazards, and more. In short, her book inspects the messy, behind-the-scenes actors and strategies used in contemporary urban development. As a designer and teacher, Heyda discusses “finding new forms of spatial agency within our existing systems, to see what part of those systems we could reimagine that would then open healthy new urban social and formal possibilities.”

Heyda brings a designer’s perspective to grapple with urban challenges at the root. She is interested in leveraging design to make problems visible and to insert designers into the political landscape. To accomplish this, she and her collaborators create drawings that highlight the need for new policies by showing alternative ecologically-based development scenarios.

Left: This award-winning project, FLOODplan, re-envisioned a riverfront floodplain in downtown Nashville, TN. This design transforms it into an active new space of remediation for human recreational and ecological systems to play out. Right: The cover of Heyda’s book, Rebuilding the American City, co-authored with David Gamble.

As Heyda puts it, “we can project new futures, new kinds of cities, that are based on new models.” Our cities’ potential for sustainability is high, but achievement is tied to the political-economic systems unique to each city and place.

Heyda is a grant recipient of the Divided Cities Initiative, governs the international $50,000 James Harrison Steedman Memorial Fellowship in Architecture at the Sam Fox School, and serves on the board of the regional Metropolitan Research Exchange.