Reducing Obesity while Revitalizing America’s Cities

English: Photo of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma mayo...

English: Photo of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma mayor Mick Cornett. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a period of five years, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett was able to rally citizens and policy makers to simultaneously accomplish two seemingly unrelated and ambitious tasks – reduce obesity among residents while drawing a new group of educated “20-something” Americans to live and work in the city.

It all began when Men’s Fitness magazine ran an article in 2007 that ranked Oklahoma City as #7 on a list of “America’s Fattest Cities.” Obesity is a health issue that affects more than one-third of Americans, leading to an estimated $147 billion in annual medical costs to treat the resulting conditions of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer.

For Mayor Cornett, it was a wake-up call to find out that Oklahoma City was one of the most obese cities in a country struggling with obesity rates. He publically declared “This city is going on a diet!” and proposed that the city lose a total of one million pounds. Citizens began to rally, forming fitness and support groups in churches, schools and workplaces. People entered their progress on the website thiscityisgoingonadiet.com.

Meanwhile, policy makers ramped up city planning measures to make streets safe and walkable, adding health-related infrastructure such as new parks, hundreds of miles of new sidewalk, senior health and wellness centers, and a street car system. Streets were re-designed to be pedestrian friendly, with shorter cross-walks and new sidewalks developed between schools and homes. Local youth were encouraged to take part in new canoe, kayak, and rowing programs that were started on the river.

Within five years, Oklahoma City succeeded in dropping one million pounds, and went from being on the Men’s Fitness list of “America’s Fattest Cities” to its list of “America’s Fittest Cities.”

And, something unexpected happened along the way. Young people, who had been leaving Oklahoma City in droves for several decades to settle on the east or west coasts, began staying. In fact, a large number of educated “20-something” Americans began flocking to Oklahoma City from other parts of the region and all over the country.  People wanted to live in a city that offered safe and walkable streets, and a revitalized downtown area.

If all mayors and city planners across America could follow Oklahoma City’s example, then our country could become less obese and healthier, possibly leading our cities to become even more attractive destinations for home buyers and renters. Let’s maximize our investment by challenging our residents and policy makers to reduce obesity in communities across America.

Do you think that this approach would work in your city or town? Please comment below and let us know.

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I have extensive experience coordinating communications and outreach initiatives focused on health and social issues. In my current position as Project Specialist, I provide communications technical assistance to regional and federal efforts within the National Partnership for Action initiative, with support from the Office of Minority Health. I am a former Peace Corps volunteer who worked on health and social affairs projects in the Federated States of Micronesia. Read more.