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Rise of the Older Urban Activist Holding Government to Account

The world is experiencing a rising aging population, with older adults making up a larger proportion of the population than ever before. In many countries, this demographic shift has coincided with an increase in urbanization, with more and more people moving into cities. While the older generation are often painted as a vulnerable group in society who are often overlooked, there is a growing trend of older adults becoming activists and using their voices to advocate for important causes.


Fig: URBANAGE Cocreation workshop run by iMec


Together for change One area where this trend is particularly evident is in the fight against climate change. As governments around the world have been slow to take action on this issue, older adults, who have discussing this issue for decades, have been taking matters into their own hands by taking legal action against their governments for their failure to act.

In Europe, a group of older adult activists have been leading the charge in this fight. They have been taking governments to court, arguing that their failure to take action on climate change is a violation of their human rights. These activists argue that climate change is causing harm to their health, their homes, and their communities, and that their governments have a responsibility to take action to prevent this harm.


The Swiss Climate Seniors (KlimaSenniorinnen) is a group in Switzerland who are taking legal action against the Swiss government for its failure to take sufficient action on climate change. The group of more than 2000 women over 64, is made up of retired professionals, who argue that climate change is a serious threat to their health, security, and well-being, and that the government has a responsibility to take action to protect them. After unsuccessful attempts in the Swiss courts during the past 6 years, the group have now escalated matters to the European Court of Human Rights, and if successful, could set an important precedent for other climate-related cases across Europe.

“It was a revelation to me that you could actually take our state to court for not keeping its word. We had signed the Paris Agreement but here we were on a path to 3°Cof global warming. I have been saying the same thing for the last 35 years but very little changed. Maybe when you take somebody to court it puts a different kind of pressure.” - Elisabeth Stern. Swiss Climate Seniors

The Swiss Climate Seniors are just one part of a larger movement of older activists across Europe who are using their voices to demand action on climate change. Another notable case has been led by Damien Carême, a former mayor of the northern municipality of Grande-Synthe and now a Green MEP, who lives in an area which is now at risk of flooding due to climate change. He has taken the French government to court, arguing that the government has failed to take adequate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect their right to a healthy environment. A first victory was gained in 2021 when the courts ordered the government to take “all necessary additional steps” to reach its climate targets. But Carême thinks more concrete measures need to be put in place.


These cases are part of a growing movement of climate activists who are demanding action on an urgent issue. They recognize that climate change is not just a problem for future generations, but is already causing harm to communities around the world. By taking legal action, they are using their voices to demand that their governments take action to protect their rights and the planet.


Uncomfortable cities

Older women and men are more affected by climate change for several reasons. Firstly, as people age, their physical resilience decreases, making them more vulnerable to extreme weather events such as heatwaves, cold snaps, and flooding. Secondly, older adults are more likely to have pre-existing health conditions that can be exacerbated by climate change, such as respiratory problems or cardiovascular disease. Thirdly, older adults are often on fixed incomes and may struggle to afford the cost of adapting their homes to climate change or paying for increased energy bills due to extreme weather conditions.


In addition to these factors, older adults are also more likely to live in urban areas, where the effects of climate change can be more pronounced. Urban areas are often hotter than surrounding rural areas due to the urban heat island effect, which can lead to increased heat-related illnesses and deaths, and they are often more prone to flooding, which can have a significant impact on people with limited mobility, who may be unable to evacuate quickly.


Overall, they are more affected by climate change due to a combination of physical vulnerabilities, pre-existing health conditions, financial constraints, and living in areas where the effects of climate change can be more pronounced. It is essential that policies and initiatives to address climate change take into account the unique needs and vulnerabilities of older adults, especially those living in urban areas.


Green Comfort Index

At URBANAGE we have heard first hand from older residents in our pilot sites about how the urban environment affects them and how their experiences have changed as they have aged and temperatures have risen. As a result the project developed a Green Comfort Index to help assess how comfortable urban public spaces are for older people. Through the cocreation workshops, a set of parameters where chosen to help measure what is important to senior citizens when they go to the city? The results were:

  • air quality

  • noise

  • heat stress and shadows

  • natural infrastructure: green (plants, trees) and blue (water)

  • accessibility

  • presence of street furniture: benches, tables, public toilets, street lighting

Combining the parameters leads to the Green Comfort Index. It’s the result of a complex calculation using artificial intelligence for the composition of the individual datasets as well as for the actual computation. Yet, the last word is given to people instead of computers. Its important that senior citizens and experts have access to the process and can fine tune it themselves. The end result is a map that represents the variation of the Green Comfort Index within the city’s public spaces. Senior citizens can effortlessly use it when they venture into town to find places that are pleasant to be in which meets their needs, and local governments and other policy makers/planners can use it for identifying issues, and simulating impact changes to a public space based on urban design ideas. before choosing the best way forward.

Fig: Green Comfort Index Design by Digitaal Vlaanderen

As the world continues to grapple with the challenge of climate change, the rise of older adult urban activists is a reminder that it is not just the young who are concerned about the future of the planet. Older adults have a wealth of knowledge and experience, and are using their voices to demand a better future for themselves and for generations to come. Urban planners and city administrators should be listening.


Learn more about URBANAGE at www.urbanage.eu



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