Social prescribing of active travel

Improving mental and physical health by prescribing walking and cycling


Physical inactivity directly contributes to 1 in 6 deaths in the UK and costs £7.4 billion a year to business and wider society.

Physical activity has significant benefits for both physical and mental health.

It can also help to prevent and manage over 20 chronic conditions and diseases. This includes some cancers, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and depression.

However, around half of all women (42%) and a third of men (34%) in England are damaging their health due to a lack of physical activity.

One of the most effective ways to increase physical activity is to build walking or cycling into daily routines.

Solving the problem

Sunderland City Council commissioned Urban Foresight to develop a feasibility study for a social prescribing of active travel pilot project. This was funded by the UK Government’s Department for Transport.

Social prescribing is a way for primary care professionals to refer people to local, non-clinical services. This includes a variety of activities which are typically provided by voluntary and community sector organisations.

There are many different models for social prescribing, but most involve a link worker or navigator who works with people to access local sources of support.

Our task was to establish what would work best for this project in terms of both individual and population behaviour change.

We undertook on-the-ground research and one-to-one engagements with community organisations and service providers across the city.

A socio-demographic analysis of the focus wards – Redhill and Southwick – and an audit of community stakeholders and assets.

Further insights came from a review of best practice from existing and proposed social prescribing and active travel programmes.


We developed a scheme to enable General Practitioners (GPs) and community organisations to prescribe walking and cycling to improve physical and mental health.

This included forecasted capital and revenue costs, recommendations on governance, delivery structures, referral flows, and an implementation process.

This formed the basis of an application for further funding to the Department for Transport.

An important focus of our work was to ensure that the proposed scheme met the needs of the local community and built on local assets. This ensured that the project built on wider investments in active travel infrastructure and supported ambitions to address health inequalities in the city.

Working closely with local professional and partner organisations also helped to secure buy-in and raise awareness of the process.


Image credit: Marc Kleen