Atlantic Cities

After a Weight Loss Challenge, Oklahoma City Seeks Walkability

Right around the time Mick Cornett became mayor of Oklahoma City in 2004, the town started showing up on those lists of great places to get a job, great places to start a business. And he loved it. He went around town talking about it. He thought the plaudits would boost the city’s pride.

"We’d never been on these lists before," he recalls. "Then, we weren’t Number One. But we were on the lists."

Then one of those lists of the fattest cities in America came out and, well, Oklahoma City was on that one, too.

Cornett readily admits that, around this same time, he got on a scale himself. He weighed 217 pounds (partly the product, he says, of the fact that everybody loves to feed the mayor). He went on the Internet and plugged in his height.

"And I just couldn’t believe it, I had no idea I was obese," he says. "And I know that’s startling to say – how can a person not know?"

It sounds as if the entire city didn’t know, or at least didn’t know what to say about it. Cornett, though, has since pushed a conversation about the complex relationship between land use, public health and economic vitality, taking his message not only to his own constituents but also national events like this week's Atlantic Live Green Intelligence Forum. Obese cities are car cities. Obese cities are cities that haven’t invested in walkable infrastructure. Obese cities are places where businesses fear to locate, because they know they’ll wind up paying more in health insurance for their employees.

"I realized I was a perfect example of all the problems Oklahoma City was facing," Cornett says, who's since lost 42 pounds. "I had always lived in the suburbs. I always drove my car. I liked to park for free right in front of the door so I didn’t have to walk. If we were at my house when I was raising children, if I had said, ‘OK, let’s go around the block,’ they would have looked for the car keys."

Cornett says he saw the world through the eyes of an Oklahoma City resident, and from that viewpoint, if there was no traffic congestion and the housing was large and cheap, that was a great way to live. In Oklahoma City, you could live on a farm 20 miles outside of the downtown core, and still only have a 20-minute commute.

"We had inspired our civil engineers through the years that their job was to see how fast they could get cars from one place to another," Cornett says. "And, mission accomplished."

One of the problems with this setup, though, is that sprawling, low density cities are harder and costlier to serve with police and fire protection, not to mention water infrastructure and public transportation. People don’t even want to ride public transportation if the roads don’t seem clogged. And they were never clogged in Oklahoma City. The cumulative effect of all this was an inefficient city with an expanding budget and a serious public health problem.

Once Cornett recognized this, he did the only thing more embarrassing than publicly admitting his waistline. He called a press conference at the zoo, stood in front of the elephants, and announced he was putting the whole city on a diet.

"I thought it was a risk – what I was doing was drawing attention to a problem we had," he says. "And the risk was that the national media would make fun of it – ‘this city was so fat, the mayor had to put everybody on a diet.'"

On New Year’s Eve four years ago, he literally challenged Oklahoma City to shed 1 million pounds (he also snapped up this savvy URL to keep track of the progress: www.thiscityisgoingonadiet.com). Rather than feeling embarrassed, 45,000 residents joined the program, and now, sometime around the coming New Year, the city is expecting to meet that goal.

The milestone is of course an arbitrary one (and we don’t think anyone is getting too caught up in the counting methodology). But along the way, Oklahoma City has found the political will to put in 400 miles of new sidewalks, a bike trail master plan and plans for a new 70-acre downtown park. The city is redefining a "great way to live" from congestion-free sprawl to denser and healthier communities where people don’t reach for the car keys every time they go around the corner.

"I can’t tell you if people in Oklahoma City are any thinner than they were. They might be, I don’t have any way of really knowing," Cornett says. And he argues those media lists probably don’t have any way of knowing, either. "But I do feel confident on the awareness side that people do understand the danger of obesity, and how as a city we need sidewalks and bike lanes and all of those things."

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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