Purposeful Planner

Diana Fernandez, TYL ’12, knew from a young age that she wanted to change the world. Now, as a landscape architect in global design firm Sasaki Associates’ Boston office, Fernandez literally shapes the soil and builds environments in locations across the country.

Diana Fernandez leaning against a railing outside of a building.
Photo credit: Jonathan Kannair

A winding path

Few in her field share Fernandez’s life experience. Until the age of five, she lived in a rural village outside Santiago, Dominican Republic. There was no electricity or running water. But to Fernandez, it felt like “paradise.”

“I didn’t know I was poor,” Fernandez said. “We had a really close connection to the land, both for survival and our livelihoods.”

Despite the natural beauty, her parents wanted a different life for their children, so they moved the family to Queens. It was a completely new world, one that was further turned upside down when Flights 11 and 175 crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. Her parents again moved the family, this time to Pennsauken, a New Jersey community across the Delaware River from Northeast Philadelphia.

But there was one more curveball left: pregnancy. Fernandez learned she would become a mother while serving as class president in the 11th grade, and welcomed her daughter later that academic year. 

“It was a really challenging time in my life to try to figure out what to do with all these aspirations I had for the world I wanted to create and live in,” Fernandez said.

Diana At a Glance

A resilient future

The close proximity of Temple to her home enabled Fernandez to commute, and its flexibility for nontraditional students allowed her to continue working to support her family. Fernandez toyed with the idea of studying political science or architecture, but during an urban planning course in her first semester she came to realize the power inherent in shaping a landscape.

It quickly became apparent she had found her calling.

“It’s a culmination of my life experiences,” Fernandez said. “Trying to work toward a more just future that is resilient for all people.”

As she moved through the program, four of her designs won American Society of Landscape Architects awards. Most renowned was her exhibition Above Below Beyond, in which Fernandez and fellow designer Amy Syverson, TYL ’12, reimagined Philadelphia’s abandoned Reading Railroad as an elevated public space. The project served as the inspiration for a real-world revitalization of the line as The Rail Park, with a quarter-mile Phase 1 component north of Chinatown already open to the public.

Changing the world was never a question

At Sasaki, Fernandez has been named a Landscape Architecture Foundation Fellow, through which she’ll continue to rethink how design processes can better incorporate social, cultural and linguistic knowledge.

But Fernandez is also a leader among a new, more diverse generation of planners, who are thinking about more than just visual aesthetics.

“I just love the ability to shape society at all these different stages,” Fernandez said. “The connection between land and power is really important. Land and landscape in the public realm is really the most poignant expression of power in our society. And if we can start to shape it differently, I think we can embrace and create new perspectives for how we can move through the world differently than we are today.”

By Kyle Bagenstose, KLN ’11, and Cal Setar