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Earth Day Series | How spending time in urban green spaces can counter our children’s biophobia and improve the wellbeing of older adults

In a recent BLISS blog, we argued that outdoor nature education programmes in primary schools can help combat eco-anxiety among children. As young people have fewer and fewer direct encounters with nature, they come to fear or misunderstand it. Spending time learning through nature outdoors can help prevent this from happening. But adults can also benefit from being outside: an ongoing project shows that spending time in urban green spaces can enhance the well-being of  older adults. To ensure that urban green spaces are suited for intergenerational use, they may need to be adapted.

Photo taken by the author

Sir David Attenborough famously stated that “noone will protect what they don’t care about, and no-one will care about what they have never experienced”. This is certainly the case for how we experience and relate to nature: nurturing curiosity and a sense of wonder for the living world is not (only) about experiencing the remote wilderness and having sufficient expertise to know enough about it – it is much more about becoming comfortable with, becoming aware of, and developing a sense of unity with nature in our daily lives and through our daily practices.

However, our experiences teaching and raising children have shown us that there is quite a long way to go. The ‘environment’ we aim to save has been reduced to a set of outside factors we can ignore; our walls and virtual reality keep us separated and ‘safe’ from it. When adults have a rare contact with it; the same applies to children.

And so, on a daily basis, we meet children and young people who claim with all their heart that they love trees and that they want to plant new ones “because they allow us to breathe”. But do they care about the old tree in the square which they never climbed, hugged, or raced around? And can they help understand their deep value for human beings and solve environmental problems without having the intimate experience of the living world? In other words, is experiencing nature instead of reading about it in books or learning from others how to protect it necessary for children to truly understand it, love it and act for it?


Good intentions, but too little interaction

Experience Aurélia has had with primary students show that the same who proclaim that they want to save Planet Earth, are also afraid to walk through ivy leaves because they believe they are dangerous,  or cannot touch earth with their bare hands (“too dirty”). They want to “fight for the climate”, but freeze in the face of the weather variations of a temperate climate (“it’s rainy”). They want to save pollinators, but run away from each striped insect, winged or not. They dream of saving biodiversity, but want to “kill” weeds and fungi, as they might be dangerous. They are passionate about fighting plastic pollution, but offer plastic goodies at every occasion.

These children are simply scared because the reality of nature is different from what they see trough television or on the internet. They are scared of nature because it provides them with sensations that have become unusual. Their exposure to weather variations, unexpected events, or different subtle sensations has dramatically decreased with the limited ecosystems they actually access, which leads to disgust and fear. This phenomenon is called biophobia, and it is now deeply anchored in the minds of adults and educators alike,[1] who spend 93% of their lives inside buildings or vehicles, and is so well reproduced by the younger generations we raise indoors. They think love and they feel repulsion.

But this can be countered: research shows that children engaged in outdoor activities on a daily basis develop more pro-environmental behaviours, with positive effects on attitudes towards biodiversity and natural ecosystems.[2] Aurélia’s experience working in nature education in Amsterdam confirms this: by developing programmes of regular experience of nature, a virtuous loop in the relationship between humans and living things is quickly established. Children wonder about the old tree that was cut down and the woodpeckers that used to nest there. With students regularly learning outdoors, the green area next to the school has become part of their daily life and identity. The school organises regular clean-up actions to preserve the outdoor learning opportunities.

This committed attitude towards nature then spreads from the children to their families and to the wider community. One community for example is now fiercely trying to protect a neighbouring park from further land artificialization projects, thereby affirming that the patch of nature they enjoy should not serve as a dumping ground for waste or a place for drug addicts – they see it as a place for families, children, and teachers to enjoy. Hence, when we invest in outdoor education – when we foster authentic human-nature connections in our daily urban lives – we show the city’s policy-makers that we value the ecosystem we belong to.


Young and old alike can reconnect

This observation stretches beyond the biophobia of children: we believe that not only children need to reconnect with urban nature, but also (older) adults. A desk review carried out as part of the ongoing AFECO project in which Sylvia is involved shows how urban green spaces benefit older adults. The project aims to empower older adults to apply affordable, age-friendly, and eco-friendly solutions to their own living environments to help them ‘age in place’, i.e. to keep living in their own homes and in their own local environment and community. The project will develop an open e-learning platform aiming to raise awareness and educate older people, (in)formal caregivers and social workers on the practical adjustments and subsidies that exist (e.g. to install a stair-lift, insulate the home to save energy), and the benefits of and ways of caring for the natural environment, for example by having the tiles removed in their gardens, or getting involved in community gardens.

The benefits are shown to be multiple: urban green spaces yield many health benefits, including a longer life expectancy, fewer mental health problems, improved cognitive functioning, and a better mood.[3] Studies have shown that such benefits are particularly important for older adults who often do not have satisfactory alternatives to exercise, socialize, or enjoy nature.

However, the design of parks have long neglected the needs and preferences of older adults.[4] Barriers that prevent older people from using green spaces include poor maintenance, littering, and perceived safety issues. They may also have concerns about inadequate toilet facilities, a lack of seating, and shelter from weather conditions.[5] We believe that these concerns can be addressed by adopting intergenerational design features in which both children and older adults at the very least can enjoy green spaces – preferably together.[6]

To conclude, during this Earth Week 2023, let’s reflect on how each of us can help to ‘invest in our planet’, this year’s theme, by advocating for more and better urban green spaces, especially for children and older adults.



Bixler, R. D., Floyd, M. F., & Hammitt, W. E. (2002). Environmental socialization: Quantitative tests of the childhood play hypothesis. Environment and Behavior, 34(6), 795-818.

Bjerke, T., & Østdahl, T. (2004). Animal-related attitudes and activities in an urban population. Anthrozoös, 17(2), 109-129.

Eagles, P. F., & Muffitt, S. (1990). An analysis of children’s attitudes toward animals. The Journal of Environmental Education, 21(3), 41-44.

Loukaitou-Sideris, A., Brozen, M., & Levy-Storms, L. (2014). Placemaking for an Aging Population: Guidelines for Senior-Friendly Parks. UCLA: The Ralph and Goldy Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/450871hz

Nieuwenhuijsen, M. J. (2021). New urban models for more sustainable, liveable and healthier cities post covid19; reducing air pollution, noise and heat island effects and increasing green space and physical activity. Environment International, 157, 106850. Doi:10.1016/j.envint.2021.106850

Soga, M., Gaston, K. J., Yamaura, Y., Kurisu, K., & Hanaki, K. (2016). Both direct and vicarious experiences of nature affect children’s willingness to conserve biodiversity. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 13(6), 529.

Soga, M., Evans, M.J., Yamanoi, T., Fukano, Y., Tsuchiya, K., Koyanagi, T.F. and Kanai, T. (2020). How can we mitigate against increasing biophobia among children during the extinction of experience? Biological Conservation, 242, 108420.

Zhang, W., Goodale, E., & Chen, J. (2014). How contact with nature affects children’s biophilia, biophobia and conservation attitude in China. Biological Conservation, 177, 109-116.

van Hoof, J., Marston, H. R., Kazak, J. K., & Buffel, T. (2021). Ten questions concerning age-friendly cities and communities and the built environment. Building and Environment, 199, 107922. Doi:10.1016/j.buildenv.2021.107922

[1] See Soga et al. (2020).

[2] See Bixler et al. (2002), Bjerke & Østdahl (2004), Eagles & Muffitt (1990), Soga et al. (2016), and Zhang & Chen (2014).

[3] see Nieuwenhuijsen (2021) for an extensive review.

[4] See Loukaitou-Sideris et al. (2014).

[5] van Hoof et al (2021).

[6] See Loukaitou-Sideris et al. (2014).

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Aurélia Chevreul-Gaud develops change management strategies to implement outdoor learning on a daily basis. She is a mentor in nature-based education, creator of the 7 Connection Gateways Pedagogy© and holds a master’s degree in change management. She is also a public speaker – see her TEDx performance. Her current project based in The Netherlands, focuses on integrating outdoor learning into urban teachers’ practices and linking it with the International Baccalaureate Primary Year Programme.




Sylvia I. Bergh is Associate Professor in Development Management and Governance at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR), and Senior researcher at the Centre of Expertise on Global and Inclusive Learning and the Research Group on Multilevel Regulation at The Hague University of Applied Sciences (THUAS). Some of her current research  focuses on the governance of heatwaves, and from her position at THUAS and with the Research Group on Urban Ageing, she is currently involved in the EU-funded AFECO project.

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Earth Day Series / Honour thy financial commitments: climate funds promised at COP27 won’t reach vulnerable countries unless these things are done

When the COP27 summit was kicked off in Egypt in November last year, there was hope that some progress would finally be made in financing climate action. But Hao Zhang, who attended the summit, observes that although efforts seem to have been stepped up, there is not yet reason for optimism. In fact, COP27 was marked by the failure of government leaders to truly commit financially to meeting climate goals. While the past year has witnessed devastating disasters, a potential economic downturn and energy crisis, the war in Ukraine, geopolitical unrest, and the aftermath of Covid pandemic, this is not enough to justify the lack of commitment, she writes.

Source: Hao Zhang

While countries have increasingly prioritized the financing of climate action in the last years, talks at recent COP summits seem to indicate that an even greater financial commitment was made to mitigate the effects of climate change. This also seemed to be the case for the recent COP27 summit that took place in Egypt at the end of last year, and which I attended. For example, on November 9 last year, the COP27 presidency explicitly scheduled a Financing Day to emphasize finance as the key to achieving climate policies and increasing climate ambition.[i]

And at the summit, attention was draw to the huge gap between climate adaptation financing and loss and damage commitments, the latter referring to the negative consequences of climate change risks that cannot be or are not mitigated in time.[ii] Thus, at the summit, developing nations banded together to urge wealthy nations to increase their financial commitment to addressing these urgent problems. The somewhat positive news is that parties at the summit in the end agreed to create a specific fund on loss and damage that aims to provide financial assistance to countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

However, even if the issue of loss and damage is now being added to the official agenda and for the first time has explicitly been discussed at a COP meeting,[iii] there is still a long way to go in enacting the commitments. Here are some of the things I have observed while at the COP27 summit showing that at present, it’s still all talk and no trousers when it comes to implementing climate funds:


  1. It has not yet been decided exactly “who should pay into the fund, where this money will come from, and which countries will benefit”. [iv] This may raise concerns that negotiations around specific issues related to how the fund will operate are likely to go on for years, with no concrete investments being made. Another central question in the funding of climate action is linked to the allocation of funds: which issues or activities should be allocated funds first, and by whom? Apart from scale-up commitments, national governments should also consider the strategic allocation of funds for climate action. An effective strategy is needed to assess and prioritize different agendas and issues and distribute funds among those countries requiring financial resources.


  1. Previous commitments first need to be honoured. It is reasonable to have to somewhat curb our optimism about getting something done when we recall that the financial commitment wealthy countries made in 2009 to mobilize USD 100 billion a year by 2020 for climate adaptation still hasn’t been fully honoured. In fact, COP27 opened with a rallying call for countries who’d previously committed money to pay up.


  1. The discussion on climate financing also revolves around how much money we will need to keep global warming within the 1.5°C limit and how countries and people who need the money most can get access to it. On one hand, climate operations seem not to be receiving nearly enough funding. Although at COP27, we witnessed nations constantly announcing new finance plans to close the funding gap, including 10 million euro from the Netherlands for the Africa Adaptation Acceleration Plan upstream financing facility, a USD 150-million package from the US for adaptative measures, 11.6 billion pounds from the UK for international climate finance, and an increase by Germany of its climate contribution to USD 6 billion a year by 2025,[v] to name a few, these are by no means sufficient to keep us on the 1.5°C


  1. On the other hand, it appears that access to climate funding remains a problem for those in need all around the world. There are certainly a variety of financial and technical resources floating around in the system given that party representatives from wealthy and developing countries alike have pledged to allocate even more funds. However, how to locate and access funds can be tricky. At the summit, civil society leaders from the developing world pushed for more streamlined access to financial resources. Representatives of NGOs from China, Angola, Bangladesh, and India for example stated at a side event that it is crucial to ensure and provide better access to NGOs and other entities who fully comprehend local needs and priorities and who closely collaborate with the local communities who suffer the most from the climate crisis.


What can we learn from this? Although there is increasing pressure on parties to scale up their ambitions, the execution thereof may actually be the bigger problem, as leaders of developing nations have stated that keeping existing promises is more vital than making more pledges. Despite the fact that the Egyptian presidency defined this meeting as the “Together for Implementation” COP,[vi] there are still more promises than a clear implementation strategy for financing aid initiatives.

To this end, I have made a number of suggestions based on my observations, which are detailed below.


The private sector should be encouraged to invest

First, it has become strikingly clear that public funds from national governments cannot be the sole source of climate financing, first of all because of their hesitance or inability to commit sufficient funds. Here, the private sector can play a significant role. Governments must develop policies to encourage private sector investment in addition to increasing their own investments in various initiatives. One of the most crucial things governments can do according to Mark Carney, UN special envoy for climate change and finance, is to “provide clear signals on where they want to go in key industries” and supplement these with “targeted and effective incentives”.[vii]


Local realities need to be heeded and technical support provided

Second, whether funds for climate action are international, national, regional, or local, it is essential to maintain a flow of information, provide clear application guidelines, and support staff capacity building. However, as the representatives pointed out during the side event, those who engage with local stakeholders targeted by climate action lack clear instructions on how to access these resources, and those negotiating financial packages, are likely to have little understanding of local requirements. It appears that the top politics may already be detached from the bottom-up realities.


The climate crisis should not be used as a geopolitical bargaining chip

Lastly, certain issues such as the level of mitigation efforts and NDCs appear still to be overlooked by the parties. Talks on finance cannot dictate the narrative at the negotiations. Moreover, the disconnected offers and needs may serve as a wake-up call for all parties that the multilateral talks are not and cannot be the sole solution to our climate catastrophe. Parties cannot use the climate crisis as a geopolitical bargaining chip; civil society and business actors may not be best served by sitting at the table and talk or shouting some slogans outside the meeting rooms.

[i] Refer to the COP27 website

[ii] Refer to UN Environment Programme

[iii]  Refer to the UNFCCC website

[iv] Refer to UNEP’s website

[v] Refer to the Global Center on Adaptation

[vi] Refer to the UNFCCC Climate Champions website

[vii] Refer to Mckinsey Insights

[vii] Watch the recording on YouTube

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Hao Zhang is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR). Before joining ISS, she was a master’s student majoring in international affairs at School of Global Policy and Strategy at University of California, San Diego. Her current research focuses on policy advocacy of Chinese NGOs in global climate governance. Her research interests lie in global climate politics and diplomacy, and NGO development in China.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.