Diana Fernandez - Leading By Example

Temple University Ambler alumnus Diana Fernandez speaks at the American Society of Landscape Architect’s national conference, held in New Orleans.

You may not know Diana Fernandez just yet but with the lightning fast creative pace she has kept since graduating Temple University in 2012, you’ll know her work in no time.

Graduating from Temple University Ambler with a B.S. in Landscape Architecture, Fernandez has placed her stamp on innovative, cutting-edge design projects, from concepts for revitalizing the Reading Railroad site in Philadelphia to a community led waterfront project for the Port of Los Angeles.

“At Temple University Ambler, you develop a family of classmates that are there with you all four years. Everyone knew my name and valued the impact that I could make,” said Fernandez, who currently works for Sasaki, an international interdisciplinary planning and design firm in the Boston area, where she lives with her daughter Kayla and husband Devin Bibeau. “In the classroom and out of it, you are learning the science, art and engineering behind contemporary landscape architecture; it prepares you well for the workforce. I felt I could walk into any firm and be capable of contributing value.”

Fernandez said her time at Temple has been “very important to who I am as a professional.”

“I didn’t know that landscape architecture existed as a profession until I came to Temple. I started as an architecture major but it didn’t quite fit the definition I had in my head — a professor suggested Landscape Architecture at the Ambler Campus and it’s been my passion ever since,” said Fernandez, who is a member of the Landscape Architecture program’s Professional Advisory Committee. “I am where I am as a professional and a person in large part due to my experiences at Temple. Among the students that I graduated with and the students that are going through the program now, there is an incredible pool of talent. These are colleagues — a network of professionals — that I’ll have for the rest of my life.”

While at Temple, Fernandez said she took every opportunity to learn and hone her leadership skills.

“The landscape architecture program is unique in that it emphasizes a lot of the technical skills that you will use in the field. I graduated with a great understanding of plants, for example, which is incredibly important in our profession but isn’t always a key part of landscape architecture programs nationally,” said Fernandez, who was President of the Landscape Architecture and Horticulture Association and a peer teacher for several professors in both the Landscape Architecture and Planning and Community Development programs. “Temple Ambler and Main Campus were our playgrounds — it’s where we learned everything we could about public and urban spaces.”  

While completing her degree, Fernandez received a remarkable four American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) student awards, including a 2011 ASLA Student Honor Award in the Analysis and Planning Category and a 2013 ASLA Student Award of Excellence in the Communications Category for “Above Below Beyond,” an exhibition of student design work she created with fellow Temple alumnus Amy Syverson and University of Pennsylvania graduate Susan Kolber to spread the word about the potential of Philadelphia’s Reading Railroad as a public, regenerative space. Plans for the Viaduct Rail Park have since caught fire and will soon become a reality — Phase I of the project is being supported by a $3.5 million state grant.

Since entering the profession, Fernandez has made it her mission to be a voice for her generation of landscape architects and provide mentorship for her peers just entering the profession. She chaired the ASLA’S Emerging Professionals Committee for two years and currently serves on the organization’s Leadership Development Committee, National Finance Committee and the Landscape Architecture Magazine editorial board.

“When I graduated, I knew I wanted to make a difference in the profession at the national level. It was important to me to engage young emerging professionals,” she said. “One program we started was ‘Ask Me Anything’ — getting professionals from all over the country to be part of Google hangouts where young landscape architects could ask them anything at all and learn from this amazing group of people. The idea was to remove barriers, to empower emerging professionals, get them involved and give them a voice.”

Recently, Fernandez was asked to be one of the speakers for a keynote panel focused on the impact of diversity on design and urban policy — she had previously been part of the ASLA’s Diversity Summit in 2015. The panel, entitled “Designing for Diversity/Diversity in Design,” was part of the American Society of Landscape Architect’s national conference, held in New Orleans in October.

“I was incredibly humbled to be asked to be part of the discussion. I was the youngest person on the stage. The other panelists were accomplished principals and CEOs; we were also joined by the Deputy Secretary for HUD under the Obama administration,” she said. “It is a topic I am very passionate about and, I think, can bring a current perspective to — how do we think about the issues we are facing as a society and apply them to design?”

For Fernandez, ensuring that diverse voices are represented and heard in design is personal.

“I am from an immigrant family; I moved to the United States from a small village in the Dominican Republic when I was 6-years-old. I grew up in what many would call a ghetto — we had no running water, no electricity. My experiences shaped me into the professional and individual I am today,” she said. “As a landscape architect, you need to have these perspectives, you need to understand what people are experiencing every day and give those perspectives a voice. We need to engage with multiple perspectives and design for the diverse people that we serve.”

Taking on leadership roles is nothing new for Fernandez, who interned with Olin and Onion Flats while she was a student and became part of the team at Wells Appel after graduation before moving to Massachusetts and joining Sasaki. Where others might try to avoid the spotlight, she jumps at the possibility “of getting other excited about what I’m excited about,” she said. For her fifth grade yearbook while she was attending elementary school in New York City when asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” she didn’t hesitate in saying “President of the United States.”

“As an immigrant, I know that can never happen, but I certainly set out to become president of everything I could from thereon out,” she laughed. “I have always been a passionate advocate for what I believe in and I have an unrelenting desire to see positive change. In order to do that, you have to put yourself out there — you have to be willing to lead.”

At Wells Appel (now Sikora Wells Appel), Fernandez said she joined the firm “at a critical time that fit with my vision of what the profession could be.”

“They are huge public space advocates in urban environments. We were able to work with communities and I feel we were able to change lives for the better by creating great public spaces,” she said. “Public spaces are so critical, particularly in urban environments where they provide an oasis for everyone. Public spaces are one of the most democratic spaces in a city — they can be used by everyone and should never be denied from anyone.”

Fernandez has never been one to shy away from large challenges. At Sasaki, she is currently working on a project to revitalize the Wilmington Waterfront Promenade for the Port of Los Angeles — Sasaki previously completed the Wilmington Waterfront Park on a 30-acre brownfield site. Upon completion the Waterfront Promenade, just south of the Waterfront Park, will connect the neighborhood of Wilmington with the Pacific Ocean.

Work for both the Waterfront Park and the Waterfront Promenade has been “heavily informed by input from the surrounding communities,” according to Sasaki. Once a part of the Pacific coastline, the Wilmington community became disconnected from the waterfront by the Port of Los Angeles — a diverse mix of industrial maritime facilities.

“The Port of Los Angeles is one of the largest ports in the United States. This is the second phase of development for a larger master plan, a collaboration between multiple consultants, the Port of Los Angeles and the Wilmington community,” Fernandez said. “For the community, which is predominantly Hispanic, this is their only window to the water. We have an opportunity to advocate for environmental justice, public infrastructure and public space. The project presents a lot of challenges and a lot of opportunities to revitalize the waterfront purposefully to create equitable, world class public spaces for the community.”

Fernandez said what she loves most about the landscape architecture profession is “creatively thinking about problem solving and then bringing ideas back to the people.”

“This is a field that is incredibly driven by people’s will, their stories, their dreams, to see what these spaces will become,” she said. “Some of these concepts might take years, even decades, to come to fruition, but I have a chance to take a small part in fulfilling those dreams. What we do as landscape architects, all of these skill sets, it’s an incredible powerhouse for change and I’m so optimistic that we will make the world a better place.”