June 22, 2023
When he's not instructing at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), San Luis Obispo, Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning Dave Amos, AICP, is giving planning lessons in another medium: YouTube.
Amos has been sharing his excitement for planning with the world since 2017, when he launched his YouTube series that answers questions like "Why do so many U.S. cities have gridded streets?" Having worked as a practitioner and now as a professor, he has a real knack for making urban design accessible, fun, and popular. His channel, "City Beautiful," regularly logs millions of views on its short videos.
At the 2023 National Planning Conference, Amos sat down with Meghan Stromberg, APA's editor in chief, for a special episode of People Behind the Plans. Read on for a sample of their conversation about why planning is having a moment with younger audiences, what makes a video go viral, and how planners can use social media to better engage with communities. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity, but you can listen to the whole conversation at planning.org/podcast or wherever you get your podcasts.
STROMBERG: I always like to hear people's origin stories when it comes to planning. What brought you to planning?
AMOS: I was lucky enough to have a wonderful government teacher when I was in high school — I wish that everyone could have a teacher like this — who gave me a book, Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken and Amory and L. Hunter Lovins. And it had a chapter about Curitiba, Brazil, and Mayor Jaime Lerner, and the story of how they did this new transit line and all these new projects on a shoestring budget and really made a big difference in that city. And for some reason, that story just stuck with me. You know, people could go into a city and make positive, concrete change that you can see in a relatively short amount of time. That direct action was so appealing to me. I just fell in love with planning right there.
All these years later, I was so lucky that I got to thank that teacher, Mr. Schmelzer, before he passed away because he truly changed my life. So, I always tell people, thank the teacher that changed your life.
STROMBERG: Between earning your master's in architecture and community and regional planning and pursuing a PhD, you worked for a consulting firm in Sacramento, California. What made you decide to make the switch from practitioner to academic, and how does that practical experience influence your teaching?
AMOS: I was lucky enough that when I was in my master's program, I had a great mentor. This whole story is a series of people pushing me in the right direction. But Professor Marc Schlossberg, at the University of Oregon, where I got my master's, was an incredible mentor. I did research with him. It left a strong impression on me that we can really learn a lot more about our cities.
And then when I was in the profession, there were times when I would be writing policies to put into general plans, and I kept wondering, "How do we know these are going to be effective policies? These are untested ideas." And I just thought this whole field is just so filled with opportunities for more research and knowledge. So, I just took the leap.
You know, people could go into a city and make positive, concrete change that you can see in a relatively short amount of time. That direct action was so appealing to me. I just fell in love with planning right there.
I feel like I'm in the right place because I'm at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and the whole university's motto is "learn by doing." And I know when people hear a university's motto, they roll their eyes, like, "Who cares? This is just marketing speak." But in this case, the university does really have a goal of learning by doing, and so does our department. For me, having that professional experience before I became a professor, I don't know if I could do my job without it.
STROMBERG: So, what inspired you to take your classroom to YouTube?
AMOS: Part of my job as a practitioner was briefing advisory boards. In any one month I'd be talking to them about complete streets or healthy communities, and I just wished that there had been a YouTube video I could show them, but nothing existed back in 2013–2014.
And then when I became a PhD student, I taught "Intro to City Planning" for undergraduates, and after I taught it, I just kept thinking, "This is information that everybody could find interesting. Why am I only teaching it to these 40 undergrads?" So, I just married the content I had developed for my intro class with the need I had identified as a professional and gave it a shot. I made a goal for myself to make one video per calendar month and stick to it. And six and a half years later, I've never missed a calendar month.
STROMBERG: Your channel is called "City Beautiful." So, what makes a city beautiful?
AMOS: The name for "City Beautiful" came as a reaction to the fact that I think a lot of people don't think cities are beautiful. Or that cities are sort of dangerous places you shouldn't go. I just wanted to bring across a positive message here that cities are the habitats that humans create for themselves, and they're beautiful in both positive and negative ways, like all the ways that reflect on us as a human species.
I don't have a specific recipe for what makes a city beautiful, but they're amazing places. I grew up in a small, small town in rural Wisconsin, and I went to Chicago a few times and had that impression of, wow, my small town is nothing compared to what's happening in this amazing city. And I hope that never leaves me because I really do think that they're amazing.
STROMBERG: Publishing content on social media means contending with algorithms and pulling people in with just a thumbnail. How do you make sure the lessons you want to teach are conveyed in each video?
AMOS: I think that seeing cities through a lens of diversity and equity is important, and that's something I try to sneak into videos. The tricky thing with YouTube is that sometimes it's hard to address certain topics head on. I have not found a way to communicate climate change, for example, in a way that makes people really want to click on that video. So I try to bring the details of when we're planning, who are you planning for, who benefits, and how equitable are the results of our planning?
STROMBERG: How do you come up with topics and what do you think really makes some of them take off? You have this video on Gary, Indiana, for example, that has four times as many views as some of your other popular episodes.
AMOS: For years, it was really just pulling ideas out of the air. There weren't that many YouTube videos on city planning, so there was just fertile soil everywhere. I'm really proud of that Gary video. To some extent, you can't choose the videos that go viral. I'm happy that one did.
The origin story for that video is kind of terrible because there are YouTube channels out there — and I don't want to even say their names, but they're very right-wing and reactionary — and they are basically painting cities in a very negative light, through a very racialized lens. They've done some hit pieces on Gary that were so ridiculous. I felt like I needed to respond with the Gary I knew.
In terms of what works on YouTube, I find that videos about concrete things work better because it's a visual medium, so highway teardowns or street redesigns or infrastructure get more clicks than something on schools or equity or climate change. If I was just chasing views, I would do all videos about roads and streets. For me, it's a balance. I believe the mission of "City Beautiful" is to educate as many people as I can, but I want to give them a broad education.
If I was just chasing views, I would do all videos about roads and streets. For me, it's a balance. I believe the mission of "City Beautiful" is to educate as many people as I can, but I want to give them a broad education.
STROMBERG: Why do you think urban planning is having a moment with new, diverse, and potentially younger audiences?
AMOS: I think there's always been a latent interest in city planning across all generations, but we don't get exposed to this education. Gen Z is lucky because they're online at a time when there's content that can feed that interest. I think the second reason is because young people are coming up against the realities of challenges that can be solved by better urban planning. I'm working with students who have a hard time paying for housing. They may want to ride their bike to campus, but they can't because the bike infrastructure is not great. They're coming up against the old ways of doing things, and they're finding it doesn't work for them anymore. They're ready to upend the status quo. They're more empowered than ever, thanks to social media.
STROMBERG: How would you like to see planners use social media to connect with their communities and share the work that they're doing?
AMOS: Planners need to be aware that social media is just media for most people. It is where you get all information. One of the best ways I've seen social media being used is in the city of San Luis Obispo. Before a council meeting, the city will tell you all the topics on the agenda in Instagram-friendly format. And then later while you're scrolling through your cat videos, or whatever, they'll tell you everything that happened at the council meeting. Being in the flow of everybody's feed is really important, and it doesn't need to be flashy. You just need to provide the information where people are.