Published: Jan. 23, 2023

Lydia Mercante, a third-year Environmental Design (ENVD) student majoring in sustainable planning and urban design, works in the ENVD’s Professional Development Services Center. She spent the summer of 2022 meeting with various design professionals in New York City to learn more about the industry to share with other students. During her adventure, Mercante met with Isabella Marcotulli, an urban designer at Bjarke Ingels Group’s (BIG) Brooklyn office, for an interview to better understand what it’s like as a woman in urban design

Marcotulli graduated from Rice University in 2017 with a bachelor of architecture (B.Arch.). . She planned on becoming a professional architect and landed her first job with Weiss/Manfredi, a multidisciplinary design firm based in New York City. 

Urban design can be seen as a difficult profession to enter since there are so many facets of the profession. According to Marcotulli, urban design is a growing profession that combines city planning, landscape design and architecture. For those interested in entering the urban design field, she suggests that the best place to start is by working in the public sector with a city or county. It is also critical to learn the fundamentals of urban planning before working in urban design. Although this is the preferred route to a career in urban design, Marcotulli took a different pathway. 

While working with Weiss/Manfredi, Marcotulli began on the business development side of architecture and later worked in project design. Although this was a positive experience, Marcotulli felt something was missing in her career and eventually realized her passion for urban design. In order to explore urban design, Marcotulli left Weiss/Manfredi after a year to join Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) as a project designer and later transitioned to the role of Urban Designer. Her first project was Google’s new campus in Sunnyvale, California, whereshe helped with landscaping and circulation. After having that experience, Marcotulli realized how much she loved working on master plans and began making her professional transition as an urban designer. 

When asked what she wished she could tell her younger self, Marcotulli talked about being a woman in the professional world, which can often make a career in design more challenging. 

“Even though it makes things harder,it also makes you feistier and tougher in the long run,” Marcotulli said. 

One thing Marcotulli wishes she had found along the way was more female mentorship and successful women role models in the industry. Marcotulli wishes she could tell her younger self to “stay nimble” and try out as many things as possible, to seek connections and not be closed off to technical processes. 

Marcotulli describes BIG as young, fresh and open-minded. Regarding how she considers being a woman has affected her career in design, she said, “if you are working hard it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman.” 

Marcotulli's work environment has indeed allowed her to thrive as a female designer, but she argues that many other women haven’t had the same experience. She suggests that one of the most important things to do as a woman or even just as a young professional is to seek support from people who value quality work regardless of gender. The best way to navigate any situation, according to Marcotulli, is to develop a network of support among professional colleagues. 

Marcotulli’s most memorable professional experiences stand out primarily due to what she learned rather than what she accomplished. One of her most rewarding projects has been the design for the Howard Terminal Masterplan, a new district that surrounds the proposed Houston Astros Stadium. Much of the project focused on community building and working on how the design will improve the neighborhoods and businesses around it. The stadium will incorporate public outdoor space, provide more jobs for the surrounding area and thereby offer economic benefits back into the surrounding community. 

Another project Marcotulli is proud of is her research and work on designing in the Metaverse, a virtual reality system that allows users to interact both together and with computer-generated content in a three-dimensional environment. Marcotulli is particularly interested in how working in the metaverse might change the future of design and how her firm will approach designing in the virtual realm. 

Marcotulli is an energetic young woman making strides in urban design, which is a unique, relatively new discipline. Her accomplishments so far in her still early career and potential to create innovations in this growing profession are inspiring.