I read a great article on The Atlantic's CityLab website the other day about how much more independent young Japanese children are compared to North American kids of this generation. While most children under 12 in Toronto don't even walk to school on their own, it is common in Japan for children under ten to ride the subway to school alone or in groups, and for parents to send their kids on errands in their neighbourhoods. Those of us who grew up in the eighties and early nineties walked everywhere and some of us even rode buses and subways to school in other parts of the city. That was normal then, though nowadays it might inspire a call to the local Children's Aid Society.
The reason it is still normal in Japan is not greater self-sufficiency of Japanese kids, it is what researchers call "group reliance," which just means both parents and children trust their communities and their society in general. The first reason is obvious: Japan's crime rate is very low, so parents are more confident that their kids will be safe. The thing is, crime rates in American cities have dropped since their peak in the 1990s, reverting to the levels of the 1960s, and Toronto's crime rate has followed a similar trend, ranked in the middle of the continent's biggest cities in 2010 (Philly, Houston and Las Vegas are at the high end, San Diego, Phoenix and LA the low end). So why are people in North American cities hesitant to even allow their children to walk to school on their own?
I have a couple of theories. One, crime may be down, but reporting of crime is higher than ever. Since the late 90s and early 2000s our access to news and information has increased exponentially due to both the Internet and the proliferation of cable news channels, many of them local like Toronto's CP24. Every shooting and stabbing is broadcast, blogged or tweeted, which might be good journalism, but may also lead to the perception of higher crime. Another possibility might apply to Toronto and some European cities more than cities in the U.S.: immigration has made us a much less homogenous city, and despite Toronto's reputation of diversity and racial harmony, people (and neighbourhoods) of colour are perceived as dangerous. The reverse is true, of course. Back when I was on the bus by myself, Toronto was still nearly three-quarters white and known as Toronto The Good, but the city was actually experiencing record highs in murders (89 in 1988). Now nearly half of Torontonians are not white and half are born in another country. Japan is still very homogenous in comparison.
The other reason Japanese city dwellers feel good about their community, which is of interest to city nerds like me, is that Japan's "small-scaled urban spaces" create a culture of walking and transit. Japanese cities are "human-sized" and car culture is secondary, so those trips to school, the grocery store or music lessons are physically safer. Older, denser, mixed-use neighbourhoods with lively streets and amenities within walking distance are great for children. In many modern North American cities like Toronto, Atlanta and Houston you will find a lot of empty suburban side streets with no sidewalks and wide, busy commercial thoroughfares with more cars than people. It's an almost Darwinian existence where only the strong (and the car-owning) survive, and that can spell doom for small children, not to mention seniors, people with disabilities and new arrivals still learning the city.
So while emotion or nostalgia may lead some of us to believe that today's kids are soft, the truth is that children with more independence can be yet another positive by-product of walkable, transit-oriented cities and good neighbourhood design.