By Leah Rambadt

Fai Foen
Fai Foen. Credit: Christopher Horn.

FAI FOEN IS ALWAYS ON THE MOVE. As I spoke with her on the phone, I could hear the sound of city bustle in the background. She brings this energy to her passion for the environment and landscape architecture, a passion she’s cultivated over decades.

Fai, a first-generation Chinese-American, spent her childhood on Detroit’s Westside. Her parents were small-business owners who were raised in rural China. So while they spent most days working inside a hot kitchen, they valued the land and spending time outdoors. As a result, Fai missed out on the traditional Michigan experience of spending times “up North” in the woods or on the lake. That said, her parents instilled their appreciation of nature and the outdoors by taking the family to fish or barbecue at the local state park and Metroparks on weekends. But it wasn’t until she went to college that her love for the environment began to fully develop into a career path.

“You can be exposed to the natural environment as a first step,” she says, “but having a mentor or having a community who enjoys outdoor experience makes all the difference to seeing a career path for one’s self.”

Once you realize that path, she adds, you have to take initiative and pursue it; work hard, and be curious and ready to reach out to a lot of people.

But the most important thing Fai learned over the course of building her career is how to take action.

After graduating with a design degree, focusing on human-centered design, she joined the U.S. Peace Corps. While serving in West Africa, where everyday life reflects a connection to the land, she observed how a “pépinière,” or plant nursery, provided economic, environmental and social benefits to a community. Engaging in this deeper relationship between people and the environment inspired her to pursue a career in landscape architecture.

Fai has always been attracted to cities. She likes urban areas because of the diverse people, experiences, activities and opportunities available. Her main interest, though, lies in opportunities for planning and implementing greenspaces.

Eliza Kretzmann and Fai Foen
American Forests’ manager of urban forest programs, Eliza Kretzmann, and Fai Foen, interim green infrastructure director for The Greening of Detroit, inspect seedlings planted on a tract of the recently revived Meyers Nursery in Detroit’s Rouge Park. Credit: Christopher Horn.

Urban greenspaces take on a different character than suburban ones. While they can be planned parks, like the Frederick Olmsted-designed Belle Isle in Detroit, they can also be a vacant residential lot, a recently demolished commercial building, or even scrappy easements. In urban areas, where the stress of life is higher and access to maintained park space is limited, every piece of green is that much more valuable. And in a place where the preferred solution for existing greenspace is mowing or landscaping, creative opportunities, like stormwater management or pollinator habitat, are being missed. A creative landscape architect who works with the community needs to be flexible, knowledgeable of plants and maintenance, and imaginative when designing for these sites, especially when there isn’t enough space to plant a tree.

While Fai appreciates forests for their aesthetic and environmental benefits, for her, it’s important to match those benefits with people and their expectations of how greenspace should look and function.

“Nothing will be acceptable if people can’t accept it,” Fai says regarding environmental projects in urban areas. She believes that many people who live in cities don’t have an immediate connection to the land and need to access to information in order to be educated on potential projects. On top of being more informed, a community’s opinion needs to be heard.

To Fai, landscape architecture is about learning how everything works together in a system. It’s about understanding physical site conditions, site use and circulation; communicating with residents, understanding their goals, sharing how site conditions affect the design, and working with the community to plant the best infrastructure possible. And that’s what led to her position as The Greening of Detroit’s interim green infrastructure director, which lets her do just that.

The Greening of Detroit is a nonprofit, volunteer organization that works to revitalize the city’s landscape through education, community tree planting, workforce development and establishing ecological landscapes. Fai learned about the organization during graduate school and, since then, has returned to work in various positions.

She enjoys connecting with people genuinely interested in and concerned about the environment and supporting residents who are working to improve their neighborhoods. Fai considers herself to be a bridge that connects environmental projects to communities, but it can be challenging to work in different neighborhoods. Each one is unique, and sometimes the requests the organization receives can’t be fulfilled due to limits in capacity and resources.

One of her current projects is the Meyers Nursery in Detroit’s Rouge Park. The project’s goals are to plan and implement increased tree production, continue workforce training through The Greening’s workforce development program for landscape maintenance and tree trimming, and improve community outreach to increase volunteer participation in tree plantings and other nursery activities.

However, the big challenge is working through the costs and implementation of the site installation. The Greening’s ongoing partnerships with the City of Detroit, community groups and other nonprofit organizations are an important part to tackling these challenges.

In the future, Fai hopes to connect more with individual communities across the city. She wants to help The Greening of Detroit continue its work of sharing environmental education and connecting people to opportunities through community tree plantings, workforce training and nature programs. She plans to work with reforestation partners to strategically plant more trees to build up Detroit’s tree canopy.

For greenspaces, she envisions designing and educating around low-maintenance landscapes that incorporate native plants. Building on traditional and contemporary aesthetics, while reflecting the need to understand the whole urban forest, from plants to shrubs to trees. In this, Fai hopes to help more people make informed decisions on how to manage land with the resources available to them and support communities in their interest to revitalize greenspace in their neighborhoods.

“It’s a passion for me,” she says. “I love working with others to create a project, and I love this city.”

Fai’s interests, and her desire to serve the community she came from and connect with residents, are what keep her moving forward and pushing for change in Detroit’s greenspaces. And once you meet her, you find yourself wanting to do the same, right beside her.

Leah Rambadt was American Forests’ spring editorial intern and is a graduate student in American University’s M.F.A. in Creative Writing program.