Designing human habitats healthy enough to prescribe

Bax & Company’s Healthy Cities team has guided a group of expert urban practitioners to understand the power of prescribing green space and socialising for urban wellbeing. Organised by the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), the workshop showed planners and health professionals how to use urban design as a first-choice treatment for mental illness and chronic health conditions.

Our collaborators on this initiative: University of the Basque Country, Hospital of Olot, CatSalut

Prescribing Meadows and Meetups before Medication

When we visit the doctor with a mental health problem or chronic illness, we often leave with a prescription note for medication. But while medicine is vital for many illnesses, research increasingly points to the power of activity-based treatments.  

There is increasing recognition in Europe for the role of ‘green prescriptions’ and ‘social prescriptions’ in treating disease. Rather than reaching for a pill prescription, doctors prescribe activities – time spent with friends, or a walk in the park.  

Growing evidence suggests that these lifestyle prescriptions could improve population health outcomes, with a major 2023 metastudy finding that exercise can outperform medication when treating mental health disorders and chronic health conditions. Many are calling for exercise to be considered a ‘first-choice treatment’ for some mental illnesses.

Green and social prescriptions present a challenge to city designers. Whereas medication can be delivered in a small plastic bottle, these treatments require careful planning of large, multi-use urban spaces. If the nearest green space is 45 minutes from a person’s house with weak public transport connections, prescribing regular green space ‘therapy’ is a bad treatment.

The success of such prescriptions therefore relies on city planners and practitioners designing cities that support accessible healing environments for their inhabitants.

Panel discussion featuring (left to right) Ferran Campillo López (Hospital de Olot), Isabel Martinez Díaz (CatSalut), Marta Rofin Serra (Healthy Cities) and Marta Jiménez Carrillo (UPV/EHU)
Marta Rofin Serra describing the need for a holistic approach to health policy

Using the urban environment to heal

Healthy Cities team members Marta Rofin Serra and Sofia Aivalioti were recently invited to lead city practitioners to understand how to apply “The Green and Social Prescription” for good urban habitat design. 

In a course convened by the Universidad del País Vasco/Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea, urban designers and policymakers learnt three important principles of urban design for holistic health.

📝 The power of urban planning

Urban planning is a powerful tool to prevent people getting sick in the first place. Investing in parks, green spaces and sports facilities saves resources by preventing illness rather than treating it. 

🌳 The power of social and green prescriptions

Too often we resort to medication before prescribing healthy activities. This is especially true of mental health. The session covered the concepts of ‘social prescriptions’ – healthy and social activities within the city – and ‘green prescriptions’ – spending time in parks and green spaces – as alternatives to prescribing medication.

🤝 The power of collaboration

It takes a village to keep a city healthy. Sofia and Marta explained how doctors, patients, planners, administrators, activity organisers and citizens need to collaborate in initiatives that join up efforts to improve health. Only then can we treat health as a way of living and organising society, not just the practice of preventing illness.

Learn more about social and green prescriptions for healthy urban living

Our Healthy Cities team works with city leaders and experts across Europe to design and make use of healthy urban habitats. Through Europe-leading collaborations like URBACT and individual assignments, they have helped 18 cities in Europe improve health outcomes through good urban design. 

Learn more about Healthy Cities here.