x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Oklahoma’s example could be music to Abu Dhabi’s ears

Cities geared around cars can become more walkable and friendlier to pedestrians, as Oklahoma City found when it decided to shake off the tag as being one of the US's fattest cities.

Like many people, I enjoy travelling – not only to break out of my daily routine but to explore the world, understand other cultures and to do what I rarely do here: walk around cities and streets.

Unfortunately, neither the culture nor the design of our cities encourage us to do that in the Emirates.

We built our cities in a short space of time when cars ruled and urbanisation has brought many advantages to us. But there are also some negative aspects to city life in the UAE, and one of those is obesity. The UAE ranks as the fifth fattest nation in the world, according to a 2012 study published by BMC Public Health journal.

Studies have shown that although urbanisation often improves health, it can also place city residents at risk of certain health problems, including obesity.

Oklahoma City, in the United States, is a very good example of this. For many years, the city focused on developing infrastructure, boosting its economy and creating more jobs for people. Not until 2006, did Mick Cornett, Oklahoma City’s mayor, realise the depth of the problem he faced, when it was ranked among the most obese cities in America.

“I started getting honest with myself about what had become my lifelong struggle with obesity,” he recounted at a Technology, Education, Design (TED) event last year. He began to reduce the amount of food he ate and increased the time he exercised.

While lifestyle choices play a major role in developing obesity, Mayor Cornett also examined his city, its culture and its infrastructure as he sought to understand why Oklahoma City was struggling with such high rates of obesity?

“And I came to the conclusion that we had built an incredible quality of life if you happen to be a car,” he said. “But if you happen to be a person, you are combating the car seemingly at every turn.”

Oklahoma is very spread out and had wide streets and large highways. For a long time, developers had not been required to build pavements alongside roads, he said, and so there were many neighbourhoods where there were no pedestrians whatsoever.

Mayor Cornett decided it was important to conduct an open conversation with those who lived in the city. That conversation started in 2007 when he said: “This city is going on a diet, and we’re going to lose a million pounds.”

He set up a website with a simple and clever name (thiscityisgoing onadiet.com), to raise awareness of the issue. The website went viral and mainstream media started to talk about it, prompting discussions at home, in schools and workplaces.

And then came the next stage: rethinking the way the city built its infrastructure to promote and support lifestyle changes. Mayor Cornett called this “designing a city around people and not cars”.

First, the city built a new central park in the downtown area. With every subsequent economic development project – like the construction of a new convention centre – the city made sure to include some health-related facilities within the plans. The city started to work on building wellness centres throughout the community and designed programmes to get children more engaged in non-traditional recreational activities, such as canoeing, kayaking and rowing.

The wide streets of the city were narrowed and landscaped, making them more pedestrian-friendly. More bicycle trails were built. The city also approved plans to build hundreds of miles of new paths and pavements throughout the metropolitan area and worked to connect them with libraries and schools to encourage young people to walk.

“And so you see this culture starting to shift in Oklahoma City”, the mayor said. Among the most inspiring results were demographic changes: highly educated twentysomethings have started to move to Oklahoma City from all over the country. In 2012, Oklahoma City was no longer on the list of “America’s Fattest Cities” and its health statistics were improving.

This is a great case of cultural shift on a large scale. It could provide lessons for many cities around the world.

There are many comprehensive plans in the UAE that cover the development of infrastructure, community facilities and streets that are safe and walkable. But would they be as rapid and effective as the case of Oklahoma City?

For sure, we need not only to redesign our cities, but to change our outlook and lifestyles. I’m looking forward to the day when I can walk safely around my hometown without facing any obstacles or judgements.

aalmazrouei@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui