Bell earned her B.S. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1957 and a Master of City and Regional Planning from Harvard University in 1959. In 1967 she earned her Ph.D. in geography from Clark University.
From 1966 to 1972, she was an associate professor of urban affairs at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. In 1972, she was a visiting associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. During this time period she was also the editor of the monthly periodical Ekistics: The Problems and Science of Human Settlements of Ekistics in Athens, Greece (1966–1977) and a consultant to the United Nations for Indonesia, The Philippines and Brazil (1970–1977). After a short stint in 1978 as a social science editor for Pergamon Press (1978), Bell co-founded and became the first President of The Computer Museum (1979–1997).