April 14, 2022

How Japan Encourages Independent, Free Roaming Children in their Cities

I have talked about the popsicle test for neighbourhoods, where your neighbourhood is connected, safe and convenient. In that test you can send a child down the street to get a popsicle from a corner store and have the child return safely and happily-and the popsicle is not completely melted or eaten.

Japan has taken that one step further where children aged ten and eleven take 85 percent of trips in the neighbourhood without parents, versus only 45 percent for children in the United States.

Gordon sent  this article in Slate by Henry Grabar. the article Hironori Kato a professor of transportation planning notes that it is custom for Japanese children to go to schools independently and on foot.  Walking school buses, where older children walk to school with younger ones are accepted and common. Even children between the ages of seven and twelve make almost eighty percent of their weekday trips by walking. This also allows children to have a spatial sense of where they live, and how to get places.

There are other factors too: Japanese speed limits are slow, and streets have “small blocks with lots of intersections”, something that urbanist Allan Jacobs says improves pedestrian safety (as pedestrians are expected at corners)  and  enhances visual interest for pedestrians.

Streets also have few parking spaces, and have no separated sidewalks on narrower streets. This provides better sight lines on streets. Since car purchasers must prove they have an off-street parking space in order to purchase a car, this can be argued as Japan providing children with more “right to the city”.

University professor at Montreal Polytechnique E. Owen Waygood talks about an underlying cultural value to Japanese children’s autonomy in neighbourhoods: ”

“There is an underlying cultural value—Japanese parents believe kids should be able to get around by themselves. And they build policies to support that. Japanese cities are built on the concept that every neighborhood should function as a village. That planning paradigm means you have shops and small businesses in residential neighborhoods, which means there are places to go—places these kids can walk to.

The video below shows a group of children in Japan walking to school in a walking school bus. It also shows the street conditions and provides an insight into the narrower streets, slower vehicular speeds and open street conditions that make the neighbourhoods more walkable for children.

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  1. Even when there is infrastructure in place, American and Canadian parents have developed a conditioned fear of walking – despite it being statistically safer than it was in the pre-1990 past. It seems to be a cultural shift that happened by degrees.

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