As America’s obesity problem has moved closer to crisis levels, public officials ranging from Michelle Obama to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have been alternately celebrated and mocked for their high-profile efforts to help citizens lose weight.
Yet it’s likely that no politician has had more success at helping constituents on this very personal issue than Oklahoma City’s four-term Republican mayor, Mick Cornett, who used to run one of the most obese cities in the nation.
On January 1, 2012, five years after he received national attention for challenging his city to go on a joint diet, he announced they’d hit their weight loss goal: A total of 47,000 residents had together achieved the mayor’s goal of shedding 1 million pounds, registering their achievements on the campaign’s site, “This City Is Going On A Diet.”
The success came because of a massive public awareness campaign that educated and encouraged citizens to eat fewer fried foods and more fresh produce, and more importantly, a collective goal that spurred competition among local employers and businesses. The mayor, whose weight once fell in the obese range, lost 40 pounds himself. The CEO of Taco Bell even flew in to discuss how to steer people to the low-fat “fresco” side of the chain’s menu.
But it turns out hitting the weight loss goal was only the beginning. It won’t do much good if the city just goes back to its old ways. To keep off the pounds, Cornett believes permanent, longer-term changes are needed, which is why Oklahoma City’s streets, sidewalks, and parks are now in the process of getting a makeover.
“The success of the awareness campaign led me to believe that the message had penetrated enough that we could get voter’s approval to start redesigning the city around people, not cars,” Mayor Cornett told Co.Exist in a phone interview.
Like many cities in the U.S., Oklahoma City was built to cater to a car culture. For decades, private developers were not even required to plan for sidewalks as the city grew. In 2008, Prevention magazine ranked it “the worst walking city” in the U.S. “I’d realized we’d built an incredible quality of life here–if you happened to be in a car,” says Cornett. “We have virtually no traffic in Oklahoma City. You could literally get a speeding ticket during rush hour.”
Today, OKC’s car-centric culture is just starting to change. Partly using proceeds from a one-penny sales tax passed in late 2009, it’s now in the process of making a slate of improvements, including a 70-acre park that will link the city’s downtown with the Oklahoma River, a new streetcar line and river kayaking facility, a senior wellness center, and hundreds of miles of jogging, walking, and biking trails. It’s also making sure there are gyms in all grade schools and is narrowing all the downtown streets to add trees to wider, more pedestrian-friendly sidewalks.
It’ll take a long time to fully remake the city. But over time, the city hopes longer-term policy changes will start to accomplish that, including a new master zoning plan that will for the first time take the public health of the community into account in making local zoning decisions. For now, Cornett says for the first time there’s a small but noticeable part of the population living in the city’s center and choosing to get by without a car. A decade ago, that would have been unthinkable, he says.
The remaking of Oklahoma City–which already has a low unemployment rate–also clearly serves goals other than health: The city is working hard to become a “destination” for millennials.
“Every city out there is trying to recruit highly educated twentysomethings. That’s how you drive the economy in this digital age,” says Cornett. “These highly educated young people, they don’t want to live in a community that doesn’t value its health. They don’t want to be in a community that isn’t walkable.”