Even by the auto-centric standards of the Sun Belt, Oklahoma City has long been a lousy place to walk. With oil as its economic lifeblood, the city stopped building sidewalks as early as the 1930s—decades before most other communities. By 2008, it had earned the dubious distinction of being the worst U.S. city for walking among more than 500 studied by the American Podiatric Medical Association and Prevention magazine.

“We probably were last in the country for walking,” admits Mayor Mick Cornett. “We had built an incredible quality of life, if you happened to be a car. But if you were a person, you were seemingly combating the car all day.”

Adding insult to injury, Men’s Fitness magazine deemed Oklahoma City the “#2 fattest city” in America the next year. More than a PR disaster, this became an economic moment of truth for a city that once saw United Airlines cancel plans for a new maintenance facility because the CEO decided he could not ask company managers to move there.

Cornett and other community leaders responded by coming up with a plan to get the city back on its feet. Voters approved an $18 million fund to build and fix sidewalks and set aside additional money for parks, transit, bike trails, and senior wellness centers.

Since then, Cornett proudly notes, Oklahoma City has added hundreds of miles of new sidewalks and now requires developers to include them in any new projects. This benefits the entire city, the mayor believes, not just avid walkers. “It turned out that one thing people—especially young people—wanted was better sidewalks,” he says. “Young Millennials, who want to bike and walk, are arriving in numbers we’ve never seen before. We are creating a city where your kids and grandkids will choose to stay.”

“We’ve come a long way in a short time,” says Cristina Fernandez-McQuistion, who moved from Santa Monica—one of California’s most walkable communities—for an executive position at a local firm. She and her family live in one of the historic neighborhoods north of downtown, with many new businesses, shops, and restaurants popping up. “This area was once almost gutted, and now it’s a very attractive place to many people because you can bike and walk.”

Ever since a new streetscape project on a commercial street near their home made walking more pleasant, she says, “When we go anywhere in the neighborhood now, we usually go on foot.”

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Jay Walljasper, author of the Great Neighborhood Book, is a Minneapolis-based writer, speaker, and community consultant.