In 2015, The Citizen wrote about Oklahoma City losing 1 million pounds. Spurred on by a fitness magazine naming Oklahoma City one of the fattest cities in America, Mayor Mick Cornett launched thiscityisgoingonadiet.com to recruit citizens, offer tips and calculate weight loss. A year later, the city had reached its goal: Residents lost 1 million pounds.
But diet wasn’t the really revolutionary idea that Oklahoma City residents embraced. That was something so simple as to be the most basic of human activities: Walking. Residents told Cornett they wanted their city to be more walkable, and he convinced them to pay for it with a 1 percent tax through the end of 2017 that has transformed that city’s landscape. In the last several years, Oklahoma City has built more and wider sidewalks, more jogging and bike trails, senior wellness centers and kids’ gyms.
The shift was not just in the infrastructure of Oklahoma City. It was in the way people talk and think about their travel. “We had created an incredible quality of life…if you happened to be a car,” Cornett said in a much-viewed Ted Talk in 2013. “If you happen to be a person, you were combatting the car seemingly at every turn.” Now, he said, it was time to make it safe to walk around again.
Ever since the Pope came to visit, Philadelphians fantasized about the idea of special car-free days in Center City, launching OpenStreetsPHL to encourage city government to create car holidays. Mayor Kenney jumped on board, making it happen several times before Covid-19. But this is about more than opening a few streets to bikers and walkers a few times a year. This is about a wholesale change in the way urban dwellers use their city—and how the city itself can, perhaps counterintuitively, be a promoter of health and wellness and even democracy.
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Numerous studies have shown the health benefits of walking, something Philadelphians could stand to consider. This is still a city in which nearly 70 percent of residents are obese, and 11 percent suffer from diabetes. In fact, two-thirds of people with diabetes around the world live in cities. Obesity is one of the leading causes of Covid-19 death; according to a study released in April, 78 percent of Americans hospitalized with the coronavirus were overweight or obese—a fact that has had devastating effects in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, walking moderately everyday for 20 minutes has been found to decrease the risk of premature death by up to 30 percent, and a 30 minute walk has huge benefits to heart health. Thirty minutes is a commute for some people, or a walk to the next closest subway stop. Weight loss has ripple effects on related illnesses; it is also good for mental health.
“What really makes the difference between advanced and backwards cities is not highways or subways, but quality sidewalks,” says former Bogota Mayor Enrique Peñalosa. “In no constitution is parking a constitutional right.”
But it’s not just about health. Walking puts more people outside on the sidewalks, which makes them safer. (This is partly why denser New York City has a lower crime rate than Philadelphia.) It makes them friendlier. It might even make them cleaner—it’s harder to walk by litter every day on the street than it is to drive by it.
In auto-clogged Bogota, Colombia, former Mayor Enrique Peñalosa called walking the great equalizer. That city closed 75 miles of road every Sunday and on holidays to cars, forcing city residents to bike and walk together. He has equated the congestion of cars on the streets to how many viewed women not being allowed to vote—an injustice that you get used to.
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Peñalosa has evangelized for a radical rethinking of how city streets work. He calls for every other street to be car-free, all the time, and for others to be reserved only for buses (and bikes and pedestrians). We don’t need to go that far. Visitors to town often say Philadelphia is a walkable city, something those of us who live here tend to forget. Under Mayor Nutter, the city became known for its efforts to become more green, with more bike lanes, and bike share in many parts of the city. And the Schuylkill Banks trail—designated the best urban trail in the country—is miles of new walkway that goes all over the glorious city.
When John Street took office in 1999, one of his first acts was to clear the neighborhoods of 40,000 abandoned cars. It was a simple thing that had a huge effect. Imagine what well-lit streets and walkable sidewalks could mean.
But as Cornett discovered in Oklahoma City, it is about more than paving paths. It is a whole mind shift. Last year was one of the worst years for pedestrian deaths. Many of those pedestrians are children. They are hit by buses, and cars and even bikes. Often, they are crossing a dimly-lit street; sometimes, they’re walking in the street because the sidewalks are closed for construction. Sometimes, they’re walking in the street because sidewalks are a crumbling mess.
These are all solvable problems, if we’re willing to do the work. When John Street took office in 1999, one of his first acts was to clear the neighborhoods of 40,000 abandoned cars. It was a simple thing that had a huge effect on the psyche and lifestyle of people living in those neighborhoods. Imagine what well-lit streets, and walkable sidewalks could mean.
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In 2016, Mayor Kenney’s transition team released a number of recommendations, including a “Vision Zero Action Plan” to work towards ending pedestrian fatalities, and an Office of Complete Streets, that would implement a number of changes that could make walking safer and easier in the city. It has not worked, in part, Jon Geeting wrote here, because it gives too much prerogative to Councilmembers to choose where and when to make changes to their districts’ streets.
Can we find our own Cornett or Peñalosa to be a walking evangelist, leading us on foot through the city?
“What really makes the difference between advanced and backwards cities is not highways or subways, but quality sidewalks,” Peñalosa says. “In no constitution is parking a constitutional right.”
A version of this story first ran in February, 2016. It is still an idea we should steal.
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Header photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash