Mick Cornett has been the mayor of Oklahoma City since 2004, OKC’s only four-term mayor and one who is leading its design-centric renaissance. Beginning with a successful citywide campaign to encourage residents to collectively lose 1 million pounds—Cornett himself lost 40—he spearheaded downtown revitalization that was centered on walkability (and a 1-cent sales tax). For Cornett, his city’s future is tied to reinvestment in terms of economics as well as reinvestment in the health of its citizenry. Design, he says, is the key to both.
When Oklahoma City showed up on a Men’s Fitness list of the fattest cities in the country, I started looking at our city for the very first time through the lens of health and obesity. I realized that we had created a city around the automobile. Almost every decision we made—from a civil engineering standpoint, an architectural standpoint, and a city planning standpoint—started with cars. And I understood what an unhealthy environment we had created for ourselves.
Once the weight-loss awareness campaign had effectively permeated the market, we realized an existing sales tax initiative was expiring and saw an opportunity to look at an extension to fund changes to the built environment. The reason we didn’t try to fund them before was, if you grew up in a city and it’s all you’re knowing, it’s difficult to understand how it can be different—or even better. But we had established, through the weight-loss campaign, that what we had was unhealthy. All of a sudden we saw all these funding opportunities, to build more sidewalks and jogging and biking paths. We even redesigned all of our downtown streets to be more pedestrian-friendly.
Twenty-five years ago Oklahoma City’s downtown basically closed at 5 p.m. We had streets that were five lanes wide and it was almost as if our engineers had been instructed to see how fast we could get somebody in and out of downtown. We had never bothered to create a place out of the core of our city, and we were trying to become a suburb of nothing. In response, we added lots of onstreet parking, and we narrowed and heavily landscaped every street. Now it’s a pleasure to walk downtown in Oklahoma City, all because of the investments we made in the built environment.
It’s not that I or the leaders of our community have figured this out and others haven’t. The real key is that we figured out how to pay for it. The secret to Oklahoma City’s success is not that we’re enlightened or smarter. It’s that we’re more creative, and we have a citizenry that has put faith in local government and is willing to tax itself to pay for these changes.—As told to Steve Cimino