Heather Sander




(319) 353-2964


307 Jessup Hall

About Heather Sander

Ours is an era of rapid urbanization. Over half of humanity lives in urban areas and it is estimated that by 2050 this number may reach nearly seventy percent. Although urban areas comprise at the most three percent of Earth’s land surface, they impact both natural and human well-being locally and at great distances. In seeking to ensure the ability of future cities to provide sustained quality-of-life and ecological functioning for present and future urbanites, we strive to produce urban social-ecological systems that are both resilient (able to withstand stresses and disturbances without detrimental impact) and adaptive (able to respond to change). Urban green (e.g., parks, community gardens, greenways) and bluespaces (e.g., lakes, streams, canals) are key sites for building such resilient, adaptive, and sustainable urban systems. These spaces promote numerous social and ecological objectives, providing environments for ecological learning, congregating and building social ties, interacting with nature, and relaxation and exercise. Urban green and bluespaces also provide wildlife habitat; mitigate air pollution, heat islands, and flooding; offer economic benefits; and positively impact human health. These spaces thus influence human and ecosystem health and well-being and the ability of urban systems to respond and adapt to change. As urban areas support a large portion of global biodiversity, this rapid and expansive urbanization has also challenged biodiversity conservation and led to recognition of the role urban environments need to play in conservation. To make such conservation possible and to ensure liveable future cities, it is critical that we improve our understanding of the ways in which urban social-ecological systems and the landscapes in which they are embedded shape and in turn are shaped by urban ecological communities.

My research centers on the combined use of field work, GIS, and geospatial analysis to explore questions related to urban ecosystems.  To this end, my research interests are highly interdisciplinary, integrating the natural and social sciences to understand human-environment interactions with a particular focus on the utilization of spatial models and analysis techniques to better understand the relationships between human well-being, urban ecosystem structure and function, and land use.  Through this research I seek to identify fundamental aspects of urban social-ecological systems that can effectively be applied to produce cities that support both environmental functioning and human quality-of-life.

My present research includes projects in three main areas:

Urban biodiversity:  My research in this area seeks to identify how key biophysical and human elements of urban social-ecological systems and surrounding landscapes influence urban biodiversity as well as the regional generalizability of these relationships among cities, focusing on bird and vegetation communities in a series of small cities in the US Corn Belt, an area where little urban ecological research has been conducted.
The values of urban green and blue: Urban water bodies (bluespace) and vegetated open spaces (greenspace) are key sites for building urban sustainability, promoting social, economic, and environmental objectives and influencing human well-being. Building sustainable cities requires an understanding of how urbanities value these amenities, how values vary within cities, and factors influencing these values.  This interdisciplinary work seeks to identify where, by whom, and why these amenities are valued with an aim of improving communication with policy-makers regarding the effects of land use policies on urban blue and green environments and human well-being.
Urban forests benefits:  My research in this area seeks to identify the benefits provided by urban forests.  In this research I focus on methods for characterizing urban forests using remotely-sensed imagery, the use of spatial models for quanitify the benefits these forests provide (e.g., carbon storage and sequestration, aesthetics, economic), and identifying how future land-use change might alter urban forest structure. 

Contributed Modules

Heather Sander has not contributed any modules at this time.