We were taught to think about problem-solving capabilities for the benefit of someone else."
Amy Bodek '90
Los Angeles County is a sprawling square of land that covers more than 4,000 square miles – including bustling cities, suburbs, a mountain range and high desert land. It is home to more than 10 million people, a larger population than 41 individual U.S. states.
Within L.A. County, there are 88 different cities, but outside of those city boundaries, more than one million people live on a land area larger than 2,600 square miles in 125 distinct communities. That’s the space that Amy Bodek DEA ’90 shepherds.
Bodek serves as the director of regional planning for Los Angeles County. She leads a team responsible for land use, zoning, building variances and permits, long-range planning, affordable housing, transportation development, ecological conservation and more.
Since starting the job two years ago, Bodek has focused on modernizing the department with new technology, improved processes and a customer-service focus. “We are a huge employer, so change comes slowly,” she said. “But we are making great progress.”
A prime example of her success: The planning department has been able to stay open for business throughout the coronavirus pandemic this year. “We’ve positioned ourselves to be able to work remotely 100 percent,” Bodek said. “We are accepting applications over e-mail and payments over computers. Construction is an essential business in California, and that means we have a service to provide.
“We were able to stand up our whole organization in four days and get everyone connected from home,” she said. “It demonstrates that we can make fast changes when it’s necessary.”
This is Bodek’s second disaster since she started in her position two years ago. In her first year on the job, Los Angeles suffered a significant wildfire that burned 97,000 acres of land, mostly in Bodek’s territory.
Bodek came to Los Angeles County after spending 25 years as the planner for the city of Long Beach, where she focused her work expanding affordable housing and building up the downtown area.
“I’ve been able to take what I learned working in Long Beach and focus my skills on a much bigger scale,” she said. “And I’ve added a focus on preserving significant ecological areas. I was looking for a new professional challenge on a new scale, and the county gave me that.”
Bodek said she was always interested in designing things, even in her younger years. “I knew I wanted to focus my career on something in the art field, but I knew I didn’t necessarily want to be an artist,” she said. She was attracted to Human Ecology’s Design + Environmental Analysis program because it offered a broad variety of design challenges in various disciplines. (She also holds a master’s degree in urban planning from New York University and a certificate in landscape architecture from UCLA.)
“My education at DEA has been life-affirming from a professional and personal perspective,” she said. “It had a massive studio component, but not just interior design. We learned about facility management, the social science aspects of buildings, the concept of sick building syndrome – all at a very formative time in my life. I loved that you could go where your interests led you.”
DEA taught Bodek a client-focus, which she thinks about on a daily basis in her job today. “We were taught to think about problem-solving capabilities for the benefit of someone else,” she said. “It wasn’t designing a beautiful space for the sake of beauty, but designing a beautiful space to fill a function. I’ve taken that concept and built upon it, and it is my life. Today, my clients might be a neighborhood, or the homeless population, or a builder, but thinking like that really started for me in DEA.”
Bodek was a strong proponent of maintaining the College of Human Ecology instead of folding into a public policy institute, a proposal considered by Cornell leaders earlier this year. “I am so glad that DEA and the College of Human Ecology are still going to exist,” she said. “I support the idea of a public policy institute, but to me, the true power of Human Ecology is the interdisciplinary nature.”