Los Angeles skyline; Los Angeles skyline;

Profiles in Design: Cities Leader Katherine Perez

Starchitects aside, we hear little about the individuals whose cumulative decisions shape the built environment. In our Profiles in Design series, we chat with engineers, architects, policymakers, and designers about their lives, careers, and daily aspirations.

Katherine, an associate principal at Arup, integrates strategy, economics, planning, and finance to deliver projects and initiatives that directly and dramatically shape our cities. Below, Katherine discusses the future needs of our cities from equity to zero emissions, the influence and inspiration she gathers from her students, and her values-driven ambition to change the ways we live, work, and interact for the better. 

Picture circa 1975, Coachella, California. Katherine with younger sister Marisol and younger brother Henry.

What elements or anecdotes from your background inform the perspectives you have today?

My grandparents were farm workers in the Coachella Valley of California and my mother was a lifelong schoolteacher. When I was a child, she would tell me, “If it was easy, everybody would do it.” She knew how to propel me forward. Ever since, that’s been one of my lifelong mottos — I’m not just like everybody else. I want to continually grow, evolve, and challenge myself. And that means continually seeking out and evaluating where I can make the most meaningful impacts for my community and my city. 

Prior to joining Arup in 2017, I served as Deputy Mayor, ran for State Senate, started my own company, led nonprofit organizations, and dedicated my time to numerous regional, state, and national initiatives. Now, as the Cities Leader in the Los Angeles office, I bring that historic perspective to exciting projects throughout Southern California and statewide. It’s an incredibly exciting opportunity to be able to influence the future of the city, particularly as it prepares for the 2026 FIFA World Cup and the 2028 LA Olympics. 

Katherine Perez as California High Speed Rail Commissioner in 2014, with California State Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins and HSR Team Michelle Boehm in Fresno, California.

My background is in urban planning and I’ve had the privilege of being an adjunct professor for nearly 15 years, teaching land-use planning, transit-oriented development, and community engagement at USC and UCLA, and at organizations like the Ford Foundation. I hope that with my teaching experience and work as the LA Cities Leader, I bring a perspective of collaboration and inclusivity that offers a new paradigm for how and why decisions are made. 

How did you first become interested in urban planning?

It was serendipity. My undergraduate degree was in political science with a minor in Russian. This was in 1988, right before the Berlin Wall came down. I wanted to become an international diplomat and communicate across many different groups. But I had a friend at UCLA who had just completed the urban planning program and she said, “Katherine, they’re building freeways through our neighborhoods.” New freeways and train lines were being planned straight through minority-rich, immigrant neighborhoods in LA, and at that time, there weren’t many people defending them or protecting their rights. So, I thought, “Here is a situation I can help my community and be a bridge between the decisionmakers and residents.”

What has your experience been like as a person of color, and as a woman, in navigating the AEC industry?

I’ve been in the industry for over 25 years and, at first, it was a very lonely place for women. I didn’t have many mentors. And being a woman of color and LGBT, it was difficult to be taken seriously. I often felt I was involved in certain projects only as a token. And when I was included, one of the first things I’d have to say is, “Hey, I’m the only woman in this room. I’m the only person of color in this room. We have to diversify the voices.”

While the industry has been slow to evolve, I am no longer alone. Today, I have colleagues who will say, “This group isn’t reflective of the community we’re working in and we need to bring those perspectives into the process” and this is a huge step forward.

With your background in planning and urban design, have you seen a shift in thinking about our cities, particularly around ownership and access?

In the Los Angeles office, we’re working in partnership with community-based organizations to better understand issues around inclusion — because we know that urban design interventions don’t affect all Angelenos in the same way. Take the al fresco dining interventions amidst COVID-19, for instance. As an urban planner, my first thought was that it was a smarter way to use the street than creating parking spaces for cars. And, of course, these outdoor experiences are more inviting than hot asphalt while supporting the small businesses trying to survive a pandemic.

Katherine Perez with Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia.

However, what our BIPOC colleagues have pointed out is that this continues the privatization of the public realm. If you were someone who would ride your bike or walk through that lane to get to work, now you have to be aware of how you’re perceived in that space. And sometimes it can feel contentious and not welcoming. These conversations have made me more aware that design decisions can have unintended consequences. 

We make one decision to solve one problem but then it can create a negative impact on another group. Now we’re asking, “What does this mean for people who used this space before? How can we involve them on what they’d like to see?”

What are the most pressing challenges, or most exciting opportunities, facing the built environment today?

As the zero emissions leader for the LA office working with and across our energy, sustainability, buildings, and infrastructure practices, what I see ahead is a complete and transformational shift. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address our climate-changing behaviors. 

I feel fortunate to be in California where, in my opinion, we are pioneering the path forward for the rest of the country. But this revolution needs to be inclusive of all communities and not just benefit the affluent neighborhoods. All communities need access to improved infrastructure that will change the world for the better. 

We’re not going to get everything right and some folks see that as a glass half empty. But I see it as incredibly full. Future generations are going to look back and say, “They made some mistakes, but they shifted us in the right direction. Hard decisions were made to pivot when we needed to, together, to make permanent change.”

Katherine’s children Lucia (23), Diego (25) and Antonia (23).

What makes you hopeful for the future?

The students graduating from our colleges and universities are so smart. They aren’t cynical or afraid of failure. They’re progressive and ambitious and it is powerful to see. Teaching them has been one of the most rewarding roles of my life. 

And for these students, equity isn’t just a word. It’s fundamental to how they think. It’s a critical challenge to our current systems. The students of today and tomorrow are going to accelerate the change we want to see because they’ll accept nothing less. They challenge me to reflect on old principles that aren’t working for everybody. Their energy accelerates my efforts to grow both as a colleague at Arup and in my community as a person.