Despite some flak from doctors, Cornett decided from the start to work with the food and drink industry. So the soda sector sponsors health programs to fight obesity, and the mayor even posed with the boss of Taco Bell in one of the chain’s outlets to publicize a low-fat menu; indeed, he keeps one of the company’s promotional cut-outs in his office and proudly showed it to me when we met. “Even when I lost weight I would go to a fast-food place, although I might have a bean burrito without sour cream,” he told me. “I could not stop people going to them, but I could try to make them more discerning with their orders. You can’t totally change people’s habits.”
In January 2012 the city hit the mayor’s million-pound target—47,000 people had signed up, losing on average more than 20 pounds apiece. An admirable achievement, with the campaign proving a clever way to raise awareness. But for all the publicity, Cornett’s ambitions had grown way beyond that original simple stunt: Now he wanted to remake his huge metropolis by remolding it around people in place of cars. Or as he explained it, “putting the community back in the community.” Yet although these days hailed as an urban visionary, he readily admits there was no “grand plan” at the outset.
Oklahoma City has been a sprawling place since the day it was founded with a land grab in 1889, when thousands of settlers raced from a gunshot to stake out their land. Like most U.S. cities, it is criss-crossed with thunderous multi-lane freeways and developed around the car. Pedestrians and cyclists were largely ignored, with few pavements and no bike lanes. When Cornett began the first of his record-breaking four terms as mayor in 2004 the city was still emerging from the economic collapse of the 1980s; he was lucky to inherit the legacy of a predecessor who understood the need to create a nicer living environment to attract families and professionals, and who did so by building a new canal and sports arenas.
He was partly spurred into action by another of those lists loved by magazines, when his hometown was labelled worst for walking in the country. Cornett contacted a planning expert named Jeff Speck, who conducted a survey of the city that concluded it had twice as many car lanes as needed. The result was the dismantling of its one-way system, seen as encouraging faster driving, along with the start of a project to install hundreds of miles of pavements, parks, trees, bike lanes, sports facilities, and on-street parking to create a “steel barrier” between those thundering freeways and pedestrians.
The scale is impressive. The city’s downtown is being rebuilt, while next up is the creation of a 70-acre central park, since studies show people exercise more if close to green spaces. “The American health-care crisis is an urban design problem,” argues Speck, author of a book called Walkable City. “The lack of attention to such issues has been a huge black hole. Data shows that physical health and obesity are tied much more to physical exercise than to diet. But what makes Oklahoma unique is their willingness to invest so generously, for which they must be commended.”