By Eric Ruble
The USC Price School of Public Policy is proud to welcome Dr. Santina Contreras as its newest faculty member. She brings a wealth of expertise in environmental planning, community engagement and international development planning. Contreras is a fellow of the NSF Enabling the Next Generation of Hazards Researchers Program. She also serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Urban Affairs and is a member of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning/Lincoln Institute of Land Policy Award Task Force.
A common thread in Contreras’ work is ensuring all communities are equitably represented and provided opportunities to fully participate in the disaster and environmental planning activities impacting their lives. Contreras aims to propel her research forward, adding to a CV that includes significant peer-reviewed research. In just the last 18 months, Contreras has been awarded several research grants on topics ranging from hazard motivated relocation of informal communities in Puerto Rico, public health emergencies’ impact on first responders and addressing water quality issues in rural Appalachian communities.
“What I am excited for is being able to use the really rich tools and resources that are so amazing that make USC and Price such a revered, top-tier institution,” she said.
One step toward achieving this objective is developing graduate-level courses on environmental planning and resilience building in Price’s Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis.
“I’m really excited to get to have those conversations with our graduate students,” she said.
Bringing her expertise home
Contreras grew up in Whittier and is eager to teach, and conduct research, in Southern California.
“To be able to positively impact the community I call home, I can’t ask for anything else,” she shared.
Contreras says being raised in the region endowed her with a heightened perception of the risks facing society – especially natural hazards.
“Being from Southern California, everyone has a little bit of a marker of something connected to some sort of disaster,” she said, pointing to the 1987 Whittier Narrows Earthquake as an example.
“The additional gene I think you get being an Angeleno is being interested or somewhat overly concerned with hazard events.”
For Contreras, her interest sprouted into a passion for addressing the impacts of disasters – both by increasing knowledge and awareness, as well as by improving recovery and building resilience. With backgrounds in structural engineering and environmental planning, Contreras is uniquely equipped to handle these challenges. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in structural engineering, and her PhD in policy, planning and design.
“I started realizing there’s so much more going on than just technical, construction-type things,” she said of her decision to pursue a doctorate in a new field.
A mission that goes beyond California
Contreras received all three of her degrees from the University of California; she went to undergrad at San Diego, graduate school at Berkeley and got her PhD at Irvine. Since then, she has worked as a research associate at the University of Colorado Boulder and, most recently, as an assistant professor of city and regional planning in the Knowlton School of Architecture at The Ohio State University.
Contreras wants to make certain the most vulnerable people – like low-income residents and those whose first language is not English – are given a voice surrounding large-scale hazard events.
“The people who are hit the hardest are going to continue to be hit the hardest,” Contreras said.
Moreover, Contreras plans to help students understand how effective community engagement and communication approaches can guide narratives in a manner that benefits affected communities.
With her return to Los Angeles, Contreras is perfectly positioned to use her professorial work to share knowledge with students and policymakers alike.
“I’ve always been a disaster geek,” she said. “Price offers all kinds of new opportunities for me to be able to work in a multi-hazard risk community.”
Contreras is an invaluable contributor to the Price School’s vision of building a more resilient world for all communities; and while California may be her home, Contreras’ work will drive positive results for people well beyond the state’s borders.