Christa Brelsford

Featured Profile

Christa Brelsford is presently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute. She recently completed a Ph.D. at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, focusing on evaluating the effectiveness of water conservation policy in Las Vegas, Nevada. Before that, she earned an M.A. degree in the Climate and Society program and a B.S. in Civil Engineering, both from Columbia University. She also has a B.A. in liberal studies from Bard College at Simon's Rock.

We asked Christa the following questions about her experience at SFI and her research interests.

1. How long have you been at SFI?

I started here as a graduate student in December 2013, I was working just halftime and spent the other half of my time writing my dissertation. In June last year I finished my PhD and defended, and then since July last year I’ve been working full time on Luis Bettencourt’s cities work.

2. What do you know now that you wished you knew before becoming a postdoc at SFI?

I would like to have had, or been able to fake, the self-confidence required to talk to everyone about their ideas, their research, and what they see as the important questions in their field. I have always been scared to speak up and start conversations, but whenever I muster the courage, it’s rewarding.

3. What interests do you have that might surprise your colleagues?

I am a competitive rock climber. I won first place in the women’s leg amputee division of the USA Paraclimbing National Championships in July 2014, earning a chance to represent the USA at the Paraclimbing World Championships in Gijon, Spain, in September 2014. I won first place in that competition too.

4. What mark do you want to leave on the world? What are your primary research interests and where do you see your research taking you?

I want to help us move towards a more just, more equitable, and more sustainable society. I think that biggest unsolved problems we face in the world today all revolve around coordinating how large groups of people interact with each other and the natural or built environment. It is especially difficult to implement solutions to these kind of coordination problems when the scale of interactions are mismatched with the scale of existing institutions that typically guide those interactions, and so my biggest research goal is to provide better frameworks for understanding and solving these kinds of problems.

Many “Big Data” approaches give us a previously unavailable window to observe systematic patterns in human interactions, thus providing better insight into how large groups of people interact. Cities and urban infrastructure provide a natural lens for viewing patterns in interactions among large groups of people through long time periods, and demonstrate many of the challenges of coordination across and within groups of people, the physical infrastructure we build and rely, and the social institutions that influence those interactions.

5. Can you tell us more about your work on the cities project?

What I’m looking at right now is how the structure of neighborhoods, informal settlements (slums) changes. We’re finding that it doesn’t change very much. A lot of homes don’t have road access, which makes sense because a lot of people who live in these places don’t have vehicles. When you don’t have roads, you can’t have police or fire protection, and it’s really very expensive to put in formal services like sewer, power, etc. So, what we’re looking at is from a perspective where we’re comparing these informal settlements around the world and throughout time, looking at Africa, India, South America and also old maps of European cities. We’re finding that in places that are informally settled, this sort of topological complexity is very common, where a lot of parcels don’t have road access. As they get more formally developed, people essentially build in roads, so that formal services can be provided. With the Gates Foundation grant we’re also looking at developing an app or a tool that people who live in these kinds of settlements can use to figure out the least cost and the least disruptive way to provide these formal urban services.

Please see Christa Brelsford World Paraclimbing Championship here to read about Christa’s experience.