Researcher Highlight: Christa Brelsford

Originally published in our September 2020 newsletter (Issue 6)

By Christa Brelsford

Christa Brelsford is a research scientist in the Human Dynamics group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Prior to this role, Brelsford has been a Liane Russell Fellow at ORNL and a post-doctoral scholar at the Santa Fe Institute.

As the world’s urban population doubles over the next century, the new infrastructure we expect to be built in order to house and care for all of these new urban dwellers will be almost equivalent to all of the urban infrastructure that has been built in the history of our species. We need to develop both a better empirical understanding of spatial patterns and the complex co-evolution of social and infrastructural characteristics in cities, and also better theories about urban function in order to cope with our rapidly growing urban population. Brelsford uses empirical methods, especially spatial analysis of novel data sources, to link individual choices to aggregate outcomes in order to build better theories about the function of cities and urban water systems. 

Determining how and why a city’s consumption patterns have changed is crucial for managing water scarcity in a context of rising water stress due to population growth, climate change, and increased variability in surface water flows. In her dissertation research, Brelsford used an extensive case study of the Las Vegas, Nevada water system to demonstrate the utility of two decomposition techniques for identifying drivers of change in residential water consumption. This enabled better predictions of Las Vegas’ future water consumption and conservation portfolio.

Another branch of Brelsford’s research has used a complexity science lens to understand urban form, casting urban infrastructure provisioning as a topological, rather than geometric, optimization problem.  This perspective enables us to mathematically describe the topological transformations that are necessary for a slum neighborhood to physically integrate into the broader city. This integration is an important step towards ensuring the safety and security of all urban residents, and thus building resilient cities in a changing and uncertain world (

Most recently, Brelsford has sought an integrated and theoretical perspective on the coevolution of human, engineered, and natural systems, particularly in urban contexts. She has tested a general theory about the relationship between urban population and a set of aggregate socio-economic and infrastructural characteristics, and used it to validate other models predicting the future evolution of urban population and infrastructure.

This work contributes to the MSD community by using an explicitly empirical and theoretical perspective to build fundamental and generalizable knowledge about how the interacting sectors of land, energy, water, and human actions may evolve in a dynamic and changing world.

Highlighted articles:
1. Brelsford, C., Dumas, M., Schlager, E., Dermody, B. J., Aiuvalasit, M., Allen-Dumas, M. R., Beecher, J., Bhatia, U., D’Odorico, P., Garcia, M., Gober, P., Groenfeldt, D., Lansing, S., Madani, K., Méndez-Barrientos, L. E., Mondino, E., Müller, M. F., O’Donnell, F. C., Owuor, P. M., … Zipper, S. C. (2020). Developing a sustainability science approach for water systems. Ecology and Society, 25(2), art23.

2. Brelsford, C., Martin, T., Hand, J., & Bettencourt, L. M. A. (2018). Toward cities without slums: Topology and the spatial evolution of neighborhoods. Science Advances, 4(8), eaar4644.

3. Brelsford C., E. Coon, E. Moran. M. Allen-Dumas. Urban Scaling as Validation for Predictions of Imperviousness from Population. In review.


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