“This city is going on a diet,” Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett declared while standing outside the elephant exhibit — of all places — at the zoo on New Year’s Eve of 2007. “And we’re going to lose a million pounds.” It’s not every day that you hear a politician talk this way. But for Cornett, his city’s struggle with obesity was deeply personal. Prior to his bold announcement that December night, Men’s Fitness magazine had published its annual list of the country’s most obese cities, and it included OKC. “I didn’t like being on that list,” Cornett said in a TED Talk. He got on the scale and then entered his weight and height in a Body Mass Index (BMI) calculator. Much to his disbelief, he clocked in as obese. It was then that Cornett realized that not only did he need to make a change. His city did, too.
“I started examining my city, its culture, its infrastructure, trying to figure out why our city had a problem with obesity,” Cornett said. “I came to the conclusion that we had built an incredible quality of life — if you happened to be a car.” OKC’s city limits are about 620 square miles. People live far away. The highway system is extensive, so citizens can travel from place to place easily, if only by car. Neighborhoods had virtually no level of walkability. In fact, some recently developed inner-city neighborhoods had schools and homes, but no sidewalks connecting them. In order to help the citizens get healthy, the city needed a redesign. Cornett got right to work. City officials continue to build new sidewalks, are redesigning streets to be more pedestrian friendly, and adding 100 miles of bike trails. They’ve built senior health and wellness centers, developed designs for a central park and a downtown streetcar, and are in the final stages of developing a state-of-the-art venue for the sports of canoeing, kayaking and rowing on the river. In turn, young athletes from all over are flocking to OKC.
While officials were busy redesigning the city, Cornett opened the lines of communication about the obesity epidemic. As the national media trickled in, the conversation grew louder. The city’s weight-loss-tracking website, OKC Million, gained members by the thousands. The pounds lost started adding up. The topic of obesity was no longer taboo. Churches started running groups, schools refocused on health and fitness, and workplaces created weight-loss competitions. In a city once dominated by cars, the humans were finally making moves, and not surprisingly, the benefits extended well past getting healthy. OKC boasts one of the strongest economies and lowest unemployment rates in the nation. “We seemed to have turned the cultural shift of making health a greater priority,” Cornett said. “And we love the idea of demographics of highly educated 20-somethings, people with choices, are choosing Oklahoma City in large numbers.”
In January 2012, the city reached its milestone of one million pounds lost — five years after Cornett stood in front of elephants and put his city on a diet. On a media blitz in New York City, Cornett stopped by Men’s Fitness — the same magazine that spurred this initiative five years prior. But this time, Oklahoma City wasn’t on the list of the nation’s fattest cities. It was on the list of the fittest.