Racing to Better Health in Oklahoma City | Commentary

When the clock struck noon on April 22, 1889, approximately 50,000 people raced to claim settlements across 2 million open acres comprising present-day Oklahoma. By the time the sun set that evening, the population of Oklahoma City had gone from zero to 10,000 and was on its way to becoming the capital of our great state.

More than a century later, we’re still running an urgent race here: this time, to better health.

We tend to associate good health with health care. There’s no question that accessible, high-quality medical care is essential to how well and how long we live. But health care is only one piece of the health puzzle. Much of what affects our health actually happens outside the doctor’s office.

That’s the key takeaway from the County Health Rankings, an annual collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute that measures the health of nearly every county in the nation. The 2015 rankings, released on March 25, examine access to and quality of health care, but also take into account education, employment, diet and exercise, housing, transportation and several other factors. For instance, research shows that good jobs and steady income help families live in neighborhoods with quality schools and safe streets — all of which affect health.

That broader view of health has been the driving force behind Oklahoma City’s renaissance.

Our city has long been home to some of the finest physicians, hospitals and medical research centers in the United States. Yet as recently as 25 years ago, Oklahoma City had one of the worst economies in the nation. Unemployment was high. Economic development had stalled. Companies were closing their doors. Residents, especially young people, were fleeing the city and looking elsewhere for brighter prospects.

We were falling backward on jobs and opportunity, so we were falling behind on health. In Oklahoma County — for which our city is the county seat — the percentage of the population living in poverty increased by 40 percent between 1980 and 1990.

Fast forward to today. Oklahoma City is one of the most affordable and fastest-growing big cities in America. We have one of the lowest big-city unemployment rates (3.6 percent) in the United States. We are the best place in the country to start a small business. Our city is attracting more highly educated young people, families and new businesses than ever before.

What changed?

We invested. Starting in 1993 — well before I became mayor — and continuing to present day, a series of groundbreaking economic development commitments known as Metropolitan Area Projects Plan has funded the construction or renovation of schools, libraries, commercial real estate, convention centers and mass transit. The economic impact of the original MAPS alone was nearly $5 billion.

We engaged business. Eleven years in this office has taught me that good health and robust economic development are two sides of the same coin; you simply can’t have one without the other.

Our businesses care about the city and its people. They help keep our parks clean and fully operational. They have rallied around our health department’s Wellness Now campaign, which focuses on obesity-prevention efforts in our hardest-hit neighborhoods. They have established wellness programs to help our workforce stay healthy.

We changed the culture. Even during previous economic heydays, Oklahoma City had a notorious reputation for having been built for cars, not people. That came to a head in 2006, two years into my first term, when we were named one of the fattest cities in America. So the whole city went on a diet and together we lost 1 million pounds. We’ve built hundreds of miles of walking paths and biking trails and are building a new 70-acre downtown central park.

In short, our entire city is dedicated to improving quality of life for our residents and the economic climate for our businesses and employers. Everybody wins when we prioritize health.

A number of city leaders have visited Oklahoma City to get a firsthand look at our transformation. I am honored to show them what we’ve built. But I’m even prouder to show them who we are — a united community committed to achieving better health one day at a time.

There’s no reason our elected officials in Washington can’t also be part of this success story — by championing and supporting innovative efforts in their home districts that promote health and wellness. With each step we take and with every milestone we achieve together along the journey, our communities can flourish like never before.

Mick Cornett is the mayor of Oklahoma City.