Magazine article American Forests

Moving Forward: Reimagining Greenspace

Magazine article American Forests

Moving Forward: Reimagining Greenspace

Article excerpt

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 smallbusiness 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 ofbuilding 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 "pepiniere," 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.

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 green space 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. …

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