Oklahoma City is a midsized town that had a big problem: It was among the most obese towns in America. Mayor Mick Cornett realized that, to make his city a great place to work and live, it had to become healthier too. In this charming TED talk, he walks us through the interlocking changes that helped OKC drop a collective million pounds (450,000 kilos).
How many of you have been to Oklahoma City? Raise your hand. Yeah?
How many of you have not been to Oklahoma City and have no idea who I am? Most of you. Let me give you a little bit of background.
Oklahoma City started in the most unique way imaginable. Back on a spring day in 1889, the federal government held what they called a land run. They literally lined up the settlers along an imaginary line, and they fired off a gun, and the settlers roared across the countryside and put down a stake, and wherever they put down that stake, that was their new home.
And at the end of the very first day, the population of Oklahoma City had gone from zero to 10,000, and our planning department is still paying for that. The citizens got together on that first day and elected a mayor. And then they shot him. That’s not really all that funny — but it allows me to see what type of audience I’m dealing with, so I appreciate the feedback.
The 20th century was fairly kind to Oklahoma City. Our economy was based on commodities, so the price of cotton or the price of wheat, and ultimately the price of oil and natural gas. And along the way, we became a city of innovation. The shopping cart was invented in Oklahoma City. The parking meter, invented in Oklahoma City. You’re welcome.
Having an economy, though, that relates to commodities can give you some ups and some downs, and that was certainly the case in Oklahoma City’s history. In the 1970s, when it appeared that the price of energy would never retreat, our economy was soaring, and then in the early 1980s, it cratered quickly. The price of energy dropped. Our banks began to fail. Before the end of the decade, 100 banks had failed in the state of Oklahoma. There was no bailout on the horizon.
Our banking industry, our oil and gas industry, our commercial real estate industry, were all at the bottom of the economic scale. Young people were leaving Oklahoma City in droves for Washington and Dallas and Houston and New York and Tokyo, anywhere where they could find a job that measured up to their educational attainment, because in Oklahoma City, the good jobs just weren’t there.
But along at the end of the ’80s came an enterprising businessman who became mayor named Ron Norick. Ron Norick eventually figured out that the secret to economic development wasn’t incentivizing companies up front, it was about creating a place where businesses wanted to locate, and so he pushed an initiative called MAPS that basically was a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax to build a bunch of stuff. It built a new sports arena, a new canal downtown, it fixed up our performing arts center, a new baseball stadium downtown, a lot of things to improve the quality of life. And the economy indeed seemed to start showing some signs of life.
The next mayor came along. He started MAPS for Kids, rebuilt the entire inner city school system, all 75 buildings either built anew or refurbished.
And then, in 2004, in this rare collective lack of judgment bordering on civil disobedience, the citizens elected me mayor.
Now the city I inherited was just on the verge of coming out of its slumbering economy, and for the very first time, we started showing up on the lists. Now you know the lists I’m talking about. The media and the Internet love to rank cities. And in Oklahoma City, we’d never really been on lists before. So I thought it was kind of cool when they came out with these positive lists and we were on there. We weren’t anywhere close to the top, but we were on the list, we were somebody. Best city to get a job, best city to start a business, best downtown — Oklahoma City.
And then came the list of the most obese cities in the country. And there we were.
Now I like to point out that we were on that list with a lot of really cool places. Dallas and Houston and New Orleans and Atlanta and Miami. You know, these are cities that, typically, you’re not embarrassed to be associated with. But nonetheless, I didn’t like being on the list.
And about that time, I got on the scales. And I weighed 220 pounds. And then I went to this website sponsored by the federal government, and I typed in my height, I typed in my weight, and I pushed Enter, and it came back and said “obese.”
I thought, “What a stupid website. I’m not obese. I would know if I was obese.”
And then I started getting honest with myself about what had become my lifelong struggle with obesity, and I noticed this pattern, that I was gaining about two or three pounds a year, and then about every 10 years, I’d drop 20 or 30 pounds. And then I’d do it again. And I had this huge closet full of clothes, and I could only wear a third of it at any one time, and only I knew which part of the closet I could wear. But it all seemed fairly normal, going through it.
Well, I finally decided I needed to lose weight, and I knew I could because I’d done it so many times before, so I simply stopped eating as much. I had always exercised. That really wasn’t the part of the equation that I needed to work on. But I had been eating 3,000 calories a day, and I cut it to 2,000 calories a day, and the weight came off. I lost about a pound a week for about 40 weeks.
Along the way, though, I started examining my city, its culture, its infrastructure, trying to figure out why our specific city seemed to have a problem with obesity. And I came to the conclusion that we had built an incredible quality of life if you happen to be a car. But if you happen to be a person, you are combatting the car seemingly at every turn.
Our city is very spread out. We have a great intersection of highways, I mean, literally no traffic congestion in Oklahoma City to speak of. And so people live far, far away. Our city limits are enormous, 620 square miles, but 15 miles is less than 15 minutes. You literally can get a speeding ticket during rush hour in Oklahoma City. And as a result, people tend to spread out. Land’s cheap.
We had also not required developers to build sidewalks on new developments for a long, long time. We had fixed that, but it had been relatively recently, and there were literally 100,000 or more homes into our inventory in neighborhoods that had virtually no level of walkability.
And as I tried to examine how we might deal with obesity, and was taking all of these elements into my mind, I decided that the first thing we need to do was have a conversation. You see, in Oklahoma City, we weren’t talking about obesity. And so, on New Year’s Eve of 2007, I went to the zoo, and I stood in front of the elephants, and I said, “This city is going on a diet, and we’re going to lose a million pounds.”
Well, that’s when all hell broke loose.
The national media gravitated toward this story immediately, and they really could have gone with it one of two ways. They could have said, “This city is so fat that the mayor had to put them on a diet.” But fortunately, the consensus was, “Look, this is a problem in a lot of places. This is a city that’s wanting to do something about it.” And so they started helping us drive traffic to the website.
Now, the web address was thiscityisgoingonadiet.com. And I appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” one weekday morning to talk about the initiative, and on that day, 150,000 visits were placed to our website. People were signing up, and so the pounds started to add up, and the conversation that I thought was so important to have was starting to take place. It was taking place inside the homes, mothers and fathers talking about it with their kids. It was taking place in churches.
Churches were starting their own running groups and their own support groups for people who were dealing with obesity. Suddenly, it was a topic worth discussing at schools and in the workplace. And the large companies, they typically have wonderful wellness programs, but the medium-sized companies that typically fall between the cracks on issues like this, they started to get engaged and used our program as a model for their own employees to try and have contests to see who might be able to deal with their obesity situation in a way that could be proactively beneficial to others.
And then came the next stage of the equation. It was time to push what I called MAPS 3. Now MAPS 3, like the other two programs, had had an economic development motive behind it, but along with the traditional economic development tasks like building a new convention center, we added some health-related infrastructure to the process. We added a new central park, 70 acres in size, to be right downtown in Oklahoma City. We’re building a downtown streetcar to try and help the walkability formula for people who choose to live in the inner city and help us create the density there.
We’re building senior health and wellness centers throughout the community. We put some investments on the river that had originally been invested upon in the original MAPS, and now we are currently in the final stages of developing the finest venue in the world for the sports of canoe, kayak and rowing. We hosted the Olympic trials last spring. We have Olympic-caliber events coming to Oklahoma City, and athletes from all over the world moving in, along with inner city programs to get kids more engaged in these types of recreational activities that are a little bit nontraditional.
We also, with another initiative that was passed, are building hundreds of miles of new sidewalks throughout the metro area. We’re even going back into some inner city situations where we had built neighborhoods and we had built schools but we had not connected the two. We had built libraries and we had built neighborhoods, but we had never really connected the two with any sort of walkability. Through yet another funding source, we’re redesigning all of our inner city streets to be more pedestrian-friendly. Our streets were really wide, and you’d push the button to allow you to walk across, and you had to run in order to get there in time. But now we’ve narrowed the streets, highly landscaped them, making them more pedestrian-friendly, really a redesign, rethinking the way we build our infrastructure, designing a city around people and not cars. We’re completing our bicycle trail master plan. We’ll have over 100 miles when we’re through building it out.
And so you see this culture starting to shift in Oklahoma City. And lo and behold, the demographic changes that are coming with it are very inspiring. Highly educated twentysomethings are moving to Oklahoma City from all over the region and, indeed, even from further away, in California.
When we reached a million pounds, in January of 2012, I flew to New York with some our participants who had lost over 100 pounds, whose lives had been changed, and we appeared on the Rachael Ray show, and then that afternoon, I did a round of media in New York pushing the same messages that you’re accustomed to hearing about obesity and the dangers of it. And I went into the lobby of Men’s Fitness magazine, the same magazine that had put us on that list five years before. And as I’m sitting in the lobby waiting to talk to the reporter, I notice there’s a magazine copy of the current issue right there on the table, and I pick it up, and I look at the headline across the top, and it says, “America’s Fattest Cities: Do You Live in One?” Well, I knew I did, so I picked up the magazine and I began to look, and we weren’t on it.
Then I looked on the list of fittest cities, and we were on that list. We were on the list as the 22nd fittest city in the United States. Our state health statistics are doing better. Granted, we have a long way to go. Health is still not something that we should be proud of in Oklahoma City, but we seem to have turned the cultural shift of making health a greater priority. And we love the idea of the demographics of highly educated twentysomethings, people with choices, choosing Oklahoma City in large numbers. We have the lowest unemployment in the United States, probably the strongest economy in the United States. And if you’re like me, at some point in your educational career, you were asked to read a book called “The Grapes of Wrath.” Oklahomans leaving for California in large numbers for a better future. When we look at the demographic shifts of people coming from the west, it appears that what we’re seeing now is the wrath of grapes. The grandchildren are coming home.
You’ve been a great audience and very attentive. Thank you very much for having me here.