Dog lover discusses parks and bikes in Los Angeles versus Tokyo

The following post was written by intern Maggie Su as part of a series of profiles of API members of the community.

Ranko Fukuda has a foot in two different worlds. Having grown up in both Tokyo and Los Angeles, she has a multicultural background that gives her a unique take on her surroundings.

Fukuda’s background is in banking; she worked with Capital One straight out of college, where she stayed for over a decade. Now, she works in the nonprofit world, running an adult education program that trains underserved adults to begin a career in banking. She made the switch after moving to LA from the East Coast, following her 2011 stint in Japan to aid tsunami recovery efforts.

Thoughtful and reflective, Fukuda notices differences in even the mundane aspects of life in each city. Tokyo citizens, for example, are generally diligent about not leaving trash behind, despite the reduced number of trash cans in the city. This is in sharp contrast to the hot Cheetos bags that litter the sidewalks near her residence, presumably left there by students from one of the three schools in the area.

Another difference is the lack of large parks in Tokyo, such as LA’s recently unveiled State Historic Park. Tokyo favors smaller pockets of land — occasional bubbles of green space, complete with benches and playgrounds, in otherwise urban areas.

Perhaps the largest difference, though, is the importance of bicycles in Japan relative to the United States. As a student in Tokyo, Fukuda commuted first by bike, riding 10 minutes to the nearest station, then by train, taking two of them to reach her school. She and countless others would leave her bicycle in a parking lot at the station — a feature of the Japanese transportation system that she appreciates.

Six years ago, on a trip to Tokyo to visit family, she brought her then-four and six-year-old niece and nephew to school via bike. The bicycle in question was equipped with a seat in the front for the younger child, a seat in the back for the older child and assisted pedaling. Although, Fukuda suggested, such a bike would likely not merit a second glance in Japan, it would raise some eyebrows in the US.

In Japan, where there are not many raised sidewalks, cyclists generally ride on the side of the road separated from vehicle lanes by a line of paint denoting the space intended for pedestrians. Cars drive more slowly, not necessarily because drivers are safer, but rather because streets are narrower. Biking in the US is indisputably a different experience: on most streets, cyclists ride between parked cars and oncoming traffic.

“It shouldn’t be that way. They shouldn’t be next to each other,” Fukuda said. “I’m just always perplexed by that bad design of cyclists being so close to cars.”

Fukuda no longer cycles on a regular basis, despite having ordered a custom basket for her bike — something that most bikes in Japan come equipped with. Instead, she walks around town with her dogs. On sidewalks, across bridges, along the LA River and around parks such as LA State Historic Park.

LA State Historic Park, which reopened in April of this year, includes numerous newly-planted trees, which Fukuda anticipates will provide shade a few years down the line. The park also features plants native to California in some sections and grass in others, the latter of which requires a significant amount of water to maintain. Fukuda appreciates the natural landscaping.

“It’s a different look,” Fukuda said. “You can’t sit and have a picnic in the [native plants] over here, but it’s just much more of a natural look.”

Fukuda, who lives about a mile away, didn’t venture to LA State Historic Park until Chinatown Fit Club began its Wednesday evening meetings. Now she comes all the time to walk her two dogs around the mile-long loop used by cyclists, runners and walkers alike. She appreciates how spacious the park is at 32 acres, but thinks some of the land could have been put to better use as space for low-income apartment buildings — additional housing that LA sorely needs. Nevertheless, she acknowledges the history of the park and is content that it has become a recreational space.

Fukuda recalled how, one day, when there was movie night happening at one end of the park, she didn’t even realize there was an event going on until she was about halfway across.

“I think there were several hundred people there, and they only used up a small corner of the park,” Fukuda said. “That’s how big this park is. It’s going to take a lot to fill it up, and that’s cool.”

She does, however, take issue with the fact that she was uninformed of the event despite living in the immediate neighborhood. The majority of those who attended were not local residents — a fact she has mixed feelings about.

“I was just here walking, and there were food trucks, all these white hipsters descending on the park,” Fukuda said. “Which, right now, if you look around, you don’t see that.”

Although she appreciates that events such as the movie night provide people with some exposure to her neighborhood, she wishes they were better marketed to her and her neighbors. She suggested flyers in the mail rather than exclusively online marketing, which she feels is not very accessible to the multigenerational Latino and Asian families that populate the surrounding neighborhoods of Lincoln Heights and Chinatown.

“For a park to work, the local community needs to support it, first and foremost,” Fukuda said. “It was nice to see all these people come in from other parts of the city to use it, but you need some local pride first.”

Fukuda questions the presence of the gate that surrounds the entire park, restricting access to it outside of its opening hours of 8 a.m. to sunset. Although she understands why the city may feel the need to close the park at night, due to the possibility of vandalism, for example, she laments that the space is not available to the homeless.

“If it’s not a space for everybody, then what’s the point?” Fukuda said. “I just feel like this is such a great space where someone who might need a bench to sleep on at night could come. What’s wrong with that?”

Despite the park’s restricted access, Fukuda has happily noticed people from the neighborhood utilizing the space.

“On a regular basis it feels like the locals are using [the park], which is really awesome,” Fukuda said.

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Great Streets director discusses Los Angeles transportation, draws comparisons to New York

The following post was written by intern Maggie Su as part of a series of profiles of API members of the community.

Naomi Iwasaki, a Los Angeles native, is a self-proclaimed transportation nerd.

“You know how people talk about an acting bug? You act and you just get bit by this bug and you love it and you want to be an actor? I think that there’s a transportation nerd bug also, and that some people just love maps and love buses and love the way that people circulate throughout a city. I’m one of those nerds,” Iwasaki said.

As such, she is well-suited for her job as director of neighborhood services and Great Streets at the office of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, where she works with city departments such as the Department of Transportation (DOT) to oversee projects designed to improve street safety, design and development.

She shared an anecdote from her time mentoring middle school students in the Bay Area, when she came to the realization that accessibility is often the defining factor in whether or not people utilize available resources. The youth center she worked with was originally located right across the street from the school that student participants attended. But when the center was forced to move across town, most of the students stopped coming due to its sheer inaccessibility.

“You can have the best resources in the world, but if people can’t access them, it’s almost as though they don’t exist,” Iwasaki said.

It was this epiphany that led her to pursue a master’s degree in urban planning from New York University, equipping her with not only extensive theoretical knowledge but also an abundance of personal experiences that contribute to her nuanced understanding of how cities function.

“[Urban planning] was a field that I didn’t know a lot about, but I knew [it] was one that understood that how cities are built affect how people in those cities live and reach their potential,” Iwasaki said.

Having lived in both LA and New York, Iwasaki can see similarities and differences between the two major cities. Although both are cosmopolitan with international recognition, the way people approach life in each city is very different. She attributes this in part to how the cities are built: while LA is a car city with sprawling freeways in every direction, New York is built to be walked. This changes how people in LA versus people in New York interact with their built environment, according to Iwasaki.

Much of her work entails reclaiming LA’s streets as spaces that are inclusive of all residents rather than merely the drivers whose cars dominate the city.

“The mission of the Great Streets Initiative is to empower communities to identify ways to transform their streets and to look at streets not as arterials for cars but as public spaces, gathering spaces, places for people to eat and shop and meet people, all within walking distance of where they live or work,” Iwasaki said.

She acknowledged that cars serve a useful function in terms of transporting people around the city — for example, taking her son to preschool via any other mode of transportation would be infeasible for her — but noted that in the past, there has not been enough emphasis on designing streets with safety in mind.

“Culturally we’re not conditioned to think of cars as weapons, but they can kill people,” Iwasaki said.

Innovation is sweeping cities across the nation in a street safety trend that Iwasaki sees LA, a current work-in-progress, as part of. Compared to urban areas such as Chicago and New York, LA’s residents are more dependent on cars, putting the city at a disadvantage in terms of both street safety and pollution from greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, because LA’s political power is decentralized and based on consensus, with 15 relatively powerful councilmembers in addition to the mayor, it can take longer to enact change. Nevertheless, Garcetti is fully committed to improving street safety and finding alternate modes of transportation in order to ease congestion, according to Iwasaki.

One such alternate mode of transportation, cycling, carries with it a different culture in New York than in LA. For example, businesses in New York often deploy bicycles for delivery purposes, be it of documents, food or other products. The result, Iwasaki said, is a fleet of cyclists whose primary concern is to get from point A to B as quickly as possible. This differs from a bike culture in LA that usually frames bikes as either recreational or as an important mode of transportation.

Despite the differences, both cities have cycling populations in common: those who cannot afford to participate in bike advocacy efforts. Bike advocacy, a world dominated by white, upper middle class people who bike by choice, generally excludes those who do not have the time or money to contribute.

“I think that both cities have a contingency of people riding bikes who feel like they’ve been ostracized and marginalized,” Iwasaki said. “Their voice has historically been missing from a lot of the mainstream bike advocacy groups.”

Most streets in LA have bike lanes as an afterthought if they include them at all. Great Streets, however, is working on implementing parking protected bike lanes on streets across the city. The bike lanes are painted next to the sidewalk with a row of parked cars separating cyclists from oncoming traffic. The first of these parking protected lanes, located on Reseda Boulevard, is now two years old.

Although parking protected bike lanes provide cyclists with an additional barrier from moving cars, there is an adjustment period. Most people are not yet accustomed to streets designed with safety in mind, Iwasaki said; in the past, engineers designed streets with the primary objective of accommodating as many cars as possible.

“People are scared of change and often can react with anger to it,” Iwasaki said. “But, as people, we are more resilient than we think we are.”

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Bike to China alum discusses Chinatown park access

The following post was written by intern Maggie Su as part of a series of profiles of API members of the community.

Kevin Liao may one day be your orthodontist. But today, he’s a biology student at California State University, Los Angeles. His ultimate goal is to open multiple dentistry practices, some of which would serve as community centers providing orthodontic services at low costs, if not for free, depending on the client’s need.

“The government says braces are not a necessity, more of a privilege,” Liao said. “But I know how some individuals, if they don’t have a perfect smile, it kind of impacts them. They may not want to smile.”

The community dentistry centers Liao hopes to one day open are his way of giving back to the community — a continuation of the work he already does with Para Los Niños, a nonprofit that provides social services and education opportunities to Los Angeles youth. Liao, who is based in Lincoln Heights, has worked with the organization for the past four years. He is involved with programs such as the Men of Action Initiative and the Escalera Program, both of which are in partnership with the National Council of La Raza (NCLR).

Liao has also been instrumental in much of APIFM’s work. He recently collaborated with Program Director Scott Chan to form Chinatown Fit Club — a weekly gathering of runners and walkers at LA State Historic Park. Their goal in forming the club, Liao said, was to encourage people to utilize the recently reopened recreational space while bringing residents of neighboring communities together.

LA State Historic Park is a 32-acre space — by far the largest park in the area. Despite this, there are only 1.6 acres of park land per 1,000 residents in LA Central City North compared to the county average of 3.3 acres per 1,000. This relative lack of park space makes it critical that residents fully utilize LA State Historic Park. Alpine Recreation Center, the second largest park space in the area, is 1.94 acres, but is often overused due to Chinatown’s high population density.

Although the turnout for Chinatown Fit Club has improved since its first meeting at the end of April, attracting the elderly population of Chinatown continues to be a challenge. Many of the elderly Chinese residents choose instead to frequent the Alpine Recreation Center, where they have been doing 6:45 a.m. tai chi for years.

“It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks,” Liao said. “They’re just so accustomed to their way of life, their habit.”

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