When Christopher Zegras started studying the way cities work, in the early 1990s, it wasn’t in a classroom, and he wasn’t pursuing a formal academic project. Instead, Zegras was a recent college graduate who had majored in economics and Spanish, and was trying to combine both of those interests in his first real job. As such, he had found a position in Santiago, the capital of Chile, working in finance.

“Chile had been going through its re-emergence as a democracy, and I wanted to see what that was like,” Zegras says.

But before long, Zegras realized that what was going on outside his office was more interesting than anything he was doing on the job. In particular, he became fascinated by the flow of people in bustling Santiago — on buses, in the city’s subway system, and in the hundreds of thousands of cars that contributed to Santiago’s chronic pollution problems.

“In my free time, I just observed the city,” he says. “I became very interested in the links between environment and development, and the city was a perfect microcosm of that.”

Soon Zegras had dropped the finance job and thrown himself into urban planning. Today, as a newly tenured professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and Engineering Systems Division, he is an expert on urban transportation systems and energy use, with a lengthy series of published papers to his name. And while Zegras has continued to study Latin America closely, in recent years he has started working in Asia, too. Zegras has been part of MIT’s efforts to apply technology to urban mobility in Singapore, and is part of an MIT group developing what’s dubbed the “Energy Pro Forma” for use in China — a planning tool estimating how much energy people will use when placed into varying types of urban settings.

“It’s the rapidly industrializing world upon which the future hinges,” Zegras says. “The challenge is how we can … take our knowledge, and build a better place.” Given the threat of climate change, cleaner development in Latin America and Asia is vital, Zegras believes, so that people in those regions can obtain “the standard of living we all aspire to, but in a way that we all benefit from globally.

(Excerpted from a longer faculty profile by Peter Dizikes of the MIT News Office; see here for complete story; photo: Dominick Reuter, MIT News..)