Podcast: People Behind the Plans
YouTuber and Planner Dave Amos on Teaching a Crash Course in Urban Planning, One Video at a Time
The average person on the street may not know what a planning professional does, but they probably have opinions on traffic, housing, and the many other elements of daily life that planners influence. Planner Dave Amos bet on that natural curiosity when he started his planning-focused YouTube channel “City Beautiful” 10 years ago. Since then, he’s seen the community of planning content creators grow on social media and says they’re feeding an appetite that’s been there all along.
“I think there's always been a latent interest in city planning all across all generations, but we don't get exposed to this education or this topic,. [Gen Z] is lucky enough because they're online at a time where there's content that matches and can feed that interest.”
—Dave Amos, assistant professor in the City and Regional Planning Department at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.
This episode, Amos sits down with People Behind the Plans host Meghan Stromberg at the 2023 National Planning Conference to talk about his own fortuitous route to the profession, why he’s telling the planning story in exciting, new ways, and how planners can lean into social media to connect with their communities.
Dave Amos: I found that when I was a planner, and I was leading community workshops, you'd have community members who didn't even understand the basics of, say, how housing is produced, for example. So you'd have to do so much background research. But if we can get this information out so that the average person coming to a community workshop just has a little bit more background information about what's going into planning and the development of urban policy, I think that's only a good thing. And hopefully it can start a conversation in a different place than where it normally gets started when we do a planning process.
Meghan Stromberg: Welcome to People Behind the Plans. I'm Meghan Stromberg, editor in chief at the American Planning Association. Our guest today has been sharing his excitement for planning with the world since 2017 when he launched “City Beautiful,” a YouTube series that celebrates the details of planning. And as of this recording, he's racked up a whopping 65 million-plus views. Dave Amos knows how to tell the planning story. Having worked as a practitioner and now as an assistant professor in the City and Regional Planning Department at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, he has a real knack for making urban design accessible and fun. This episode, we'll talk about his viral videos, how he's seeing the planning pipeline evolve, and what planners can do to leverage the power of social media. Dave, thanks for joining us today.
Dave Amos: Thanks for having me. I'm a listener, so happy to be here.
Meghan Stromberg: Oh, I'm so glad to hear it. I always like to hear people's origin stories when it comes to planning, and yours came sometime around high school. What brought you to planning?
Dave 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 out of nowhere. I was so confused. I'm like, “Why are you giving me more homework?” But he said, “You would really like this book.” And the book was Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins. And it had a chapter about Curitiba, Brazil and Mayor 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 as, wow, 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 it right there. So, so appreciative. I was so lucky that I got to thank him, my teacher, all these years later, because he truly changed my life before he passed away. So I always tell people, thank the teacher that changed your life because, you know, it's such a big deal. So I was very lucky to learn at an early age that planning was my passion.
Meghan Stromberg: What's his name?
Dave Amos: Mr. Schmelzer.
Meghan Stromberg: Thank you, Mr. Schmelzer. Thank you for bringing Dave to planning.
Dave Amos: Yes.
Meghan 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. What made you decide to make the switch from practitioner to academic, and how does that practical experience influence your teaching?
Dave Amos: Yeah, it wasn't an easy decision because I was really enjoying my time as a consultant planner. I worked at a great firm in Sacramento. We did general plans in the Central Valley and near the Bay Area. I learned so much. I tell people that I learned probably more about planning from that two or three years that I was at the planning firm when compared to my time in grad school. But 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, wow, you know, we can really learn a lot more about our cities. And then when I was in the profession, I was drafting plans, and there were times when I would be writing policies to put in these general plans, and I kept wondering, “How do we know these are going to be effective policies, right? 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.
I felt passionate that I really wanted to do research. I knew I liked teaching as well—I guess I liked to be on stage, so to speak—so I knew that I would like that side as well. I was nervous. It's a risky endeavor to become a professor. It's five years to earn a PhD and then an uncertain academic job market. It was a bit of a risk, but happy I did it, obviously. 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 a university's motto, people roll their eyes, like, “Who cares? This is just marketing speak.” But in this case, the university does really have a goal of learn by doing, and so does our department. So I teach community planning studios where we have a real-world client. We work with a city for 20 weeks. We get the students out there doing community outreach, preparing a plan, and me and my colleagues who run the studios will either do a student draft—the client then takes it and makes an adoptable draft—or we do an adoptable draft for them. So they're doing real planning. For me, having that professional experience before I became a professor, I don't know if I could do my job without it. I like being at Cal Poly because it allows me to keep my professional skills sharp while still doing the academic stuff.
Meghan Stromberg: Yeah, the way you put it makes perfect sense. And I wonder how many academics or practitioners would benefit from having experience on the other side.
Dave Amos: Absolutely. We bring in practitioners to teach our students, right? So we have a good mix of full-time academic staff and practitioners. So our students are getting both sides because I think there's value as well to understanding the theory behind what they're doing. But the practical stuff is really fun, and that's where I just really enjoy teaching.
Meghan Stromberg: So what inspired you to take your classroom to YouTube?
Dave Amos: So that also started when I was a practitioner. Part of my job was briefing advisory boards. I was working on general plan projects, for example, and we’d have general plan advisory committee meetings every month. We’d have to take them through the plan and have them figure out what the new policies are going to be in this plan. You know, in one month I'd be talking to them about complete streets or healthy communities or things like that, and I just wished that there would be a YouTube video I could show them because otherwise I had to make a 20-minute slide presentation every month to tell them about this new topic. So I guess I was just a little bit lazy, but nothing existed back in 2013, 2014. The YouTube city planning space wasn't what it is now, so that was just sort of in the back of my mind.
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, you know? So, it doesn't seem like anybody else is going to do it, so may as well just give it a shot.
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 had no experience making videos. I'm sure it shows. I'm not a fancy Hollywood producer or anything like that. It took me like four months to make my first video. I mean, I literally had to learn all the software from scratch. I was using my AirPod microphone in a closet to try to get good acoustics, you know? I don't know what I was doing. Then I made a goal for myself. I said, “I'm going to make one video per calendar month and stick to it,” and in six and a half years later, I've never missed a calendar month.
Meghan Stromberg: So what are you working on now, or do you not give previews?
Dave Amos: No, no, it's okay. I have a couple of videos coming out next. One is on historic districts and the positives and negatives of historic districts, some of the underlying challenges of doing historic districts. And then another one on college towns—which is appropriate, I live in a college town—but what makes them different and special, and how do you plan for them differently? Since I'm here in Philadelphia, I'm filming one on how to fix the suburbs, and I've set it in Levittown while I'm here, so that's kind of cool. Beyond that, I'm not so sure. We'll see what happens, but those next three videos are planned out.
Meghan Stromberg: Okay. Your channel is called “City Beautiful.” So here's the big question: What makes a city beautiful?
Dave 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 think that the suburbs are where it's at, or that cities are sort of dangerous places or dark places, or places you shouldn't go or whatever. So, I just wanted to bring across a positive message here that cities are the habitats that humans create for themselves, and they're sort of 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 cities are beautiful. They're amazing places. I think a lot of it also comes from my own personal background. I grew up in a small, small town in rural Wisconsin, and I didn't even get to go to cities very often. 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 still feel like that coming into a city like Philadelphia and just being in awe. And I hope that never leaves me because I really do think that they're amazing.
Meghan Stromberg: I agree. It is truly a beautiful city.
Dave Amos: It is. Yes. The art here is amazing. The city is just such a great place to walk around. The amazing cultures here, all the amenities. It's been so fun.
Meghan Stromberg: So you mentioned Philadelphia, so I should say we're doing this interview at the National Planning Conference, at NPC23, in Philadelphia. I learned when we first met earlier today that this is your first one. How has your experience been, and what are you doing here?
Dave Amos: It's been fantastic. I've always heard about how large it was. It defied even that expectation. There's so many dedicated planners here. It's just been inspirational, and all of the sessions so far have taught me something, and that's been great. I'm here because there's 15 Cal Poly students who are also here, and we're all taking it in as the first time together, so that's been great. So not only have I been absorbing the conference, I've also been hearing how they're absorbing the conference, and they've also been incredibly inspired. So it's been a positive experience all around. I'm having so much fun.
Meghan Stromberg: Oh, I'm so glad to hear it. So, taken together, your videos make this argument that, when it comes to urban planning, it's all in the details, right? I'm wondering whether there are some real-life planning details that you wish you would see more often.
Dave Amos: My channel is all about the details because, in some ways, what I do is trying to balance detail with broad overview. That's one of the challenges of being on YouTube, right, is that you have to get people engaged in a 10-minute video, and 10 minutes is not enough time to teach anybody even the first sliver of a detail about something. And one of my big inspirations for the channel was science museums, natural history museums. You go to a natural history museum, you're not going to become a paleontologist by looking at the dinosaur skeletons, right? But you might be inspired to learn more in detail somewhere else. Or maybe you've learned a few facts that just change that perspective a little bit. And I think that is so inspirational. And that's really what I'm trying to do here is I provide just enough detail to get you interested in maybe finding out more about your own community.
So in terms of the actual details I want people to know more about, I think that's a tough question. 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 topics head on—certain topics. I have not found a way to communicate climate change, for example, in a way that people really want to click on that video. I think if I address equity directly, sometimes people don't want to click on it as much, and I don't know why. My own personal theory is people don't come to YouTube to be bummed out. And I think people think they're going to be bummed out if they're learning about equity or climate change or some of these more serious topics. I try to weave it into the video, so you're clicking on one thing, but then I give you a detour into it. That's something 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?
Meghan Stromberg: So how do you come up with the topics you cover, 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. How do you get your inspiration?
Dave Amos: Yeah, there's a couple of questions in there. For years after I finished one video, I would stop and think, “What do I want to think about for the next couple of weeks? So I'll make this video.” It was really just pulling ideas out of the air. Early on, again, there weren't that many YouTube videos on city planning, so there was just fertile soil everywhere. You know, I could take any topic, and it hadn't been done before, so it was really easy to come up with topics. Whatever I thought would be interesting. I knew my audience would find interesting because they were coming along with me for the ride.
So things have changed a little bit now. Thankfully, quite honestly, there's a whole ecosystem of YouTubers doing city planning content, which I'm so happy about. I have to be a little bit more strategic now because if somebody else has covered a topic so well that I don't need to do it, I won't do it. There's a video out there. So I do have to do a little bit of triangulation of figuring out how can I bring something new to a topic or do something that hasn't been done before.
It's tough. The YouTube algorithm works in mysterious ways. 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. Like I said in the beginning of that video, my wife and her family is from that area historically, so I knew that area pretty well. And 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 name, but they're very right-wing reactionary, and they are basically painting cities in a very negative light, in a very racialized lens—and they've done some hit pieces on Gary that were so ridiculous, I felt like I needed to respond with the Gary I knew, right? And the irony here is one of the videos shows a person who gets “chased out” of Gary—I'm using quotes because, you know—by the locals, and it's so ridiculous. So me and my 80-year-old father-in-law drove around Gary, you know, totally fine all over town taking clips of that city. And I was getting his view of what it was like to grow up there and then seeing it today. And I felt like it was just a really great video. Again, it was an opportunity to paint a new narrative for the city of Gary that was, again, not being shown on YouTube at the time. So for that one to go viral, I also just felt like I got the last laugh. It has way more views than those other ones that were painting Gary in the wrong light. So just really happy about that one.
I think the reason that went viral, though, is not necessarily that reason. In the YouTube game, it's in a lot of ways similar to journalism. In the same way a good headline or a good photo makes people want to read the story, a good title and thumbnail on YouTube makes people want to watch the video. And the title of that video is “The Most Miserable City in America.” Now, I don't think it's the most miserable city, but a magazine had painted it that way or said it was that way, so that's why I used that. In the YouTube world, when you use a superlative like most—"the most miserable city”—people like to click on that. But then again, when they click on it, then they're going to get a really nuanced picture of what happened in Gary. So happy about that.
So in terms of what works on YouTube, I find that videos about concrete things work better because it's a visual medium. So highway tear-downs or street redesigns or infrastructure, they get more clicks probably than something on schools or equity or climate change, which are a little bit more nebulous topics. But again, I mean, if I was just chasing views, I would do all videos about roads and streets and things. For me, it's a balance. I'm trying to reach as many people as possible. 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. So I know sometimes when I post a video, this one's not going to get the same views as this other one I did, and that's okay. I'm not looking to just make, you know, 100% viral videos, so it's okay.
Meghan Stromberg: You're a teacher at heart. You feel like you have this responsibility to use this medium wisely, right?
Dave Amos: Yeah.
Meghan Stromberg: To use this platform wisely.
Dave Amos: Responsibility is a good word. I mean, I think one of the videos I pored over the most—and again, another one I'm proud of because I think it just crossed the million-view mark—was the history of city planning, a brief history of city planning. And it's impossible to do a history of U.S. city planning in 14 minutes. I don't think I've ever talked faster in that video. I feel so embarrassed about listening to it now because I talk so fast. It's hard to do 14 minutes, you know, compress the entirety of city planning history, but there was no city planning history video out there, and I knew that at this point, my channel was big enough that if I posted a history video, it'd be one of the most-viewed history experiences that people would ever have. Like, I don't know how many people in the United States read a U.S. city planning history book. I mean, probably very, very few. But now a million people have seen my take on city planning history. So there's a responsibility there to get it right. I made it my goal. I mean, I started the history of U.S. city planning with Indigenous history and not with colonial history. I talked about the Great Migration, making sure that some of that stuff was in there because I take that as a strong responsibility to get the history as right as I can. And, of course, in 14 minutes there's omissions. I didn't do a perfect job, but, you know, again, I was proud of that effort.
Meghan Stromberg: I had asked about how you come up with topics, and I actually have a colleague in my APA office who is a fan of yours. And he himself is not a planner, but he really likes the way that you can take a planning concept and break it down, summarize it, sort of demystify it in a way that's accessible to anyone. So is it fun to hear that kind of feedback, and do your ideas ever come from your audience?
Dave Amos: Yeah, no, it is fun. I mean, the audience for “City Beautiful” is really non-planners. So I'm so happy when I hear somebody who has no planning background finds an interest in city planning. That's what it's all about. And that's another one of the main missions of the channel. I mean, I sort of can't believe that in our U.S. high school curriculum there's not really a space for city planning. That's why I had to experience this through a teacher who gave me a book out of nowhere, right? That's how I got my experience with it. So the fact that I can provide this additional education to folks who didn't get it is great. I mean, not everyone needs to major in city planning to learn about city planning, so that's awesome. One of my other favorite comments I get is that the videos I did inspire them to go into city planning as a profession. That's also really great to hear because I think more people should be in this profession. I think it's great.
Meghan Stromberg: Urban planning is really striking a chord with a lot of young people in ways we've never seen. And it's thanks to creators like you on YouTube or other social media platforms. And why do you think that is? Why is it having a moment with new, diverse, potentially younger audiences?
Dave Amos: Yeah, I think there's a couple of reasons for that. I think one of the main reasons is that I think there's always been a latent interest in city planning all across all generations. But again, we don't get exposed to this education or this topic. I'm sure you feel the same way when you say that, “Oh, I'm a city planner,” or “I'm into city planning.” People are like, “What is that? What does that mean? Do you fix the traffic lights?” I think there's a lack of education, but I think there's a general interest in how cities work. This generation is lucky enough because they're online at a time where there's content that matches and can feed that interest. So that's why I think that we're seeing this moment. And I hope it's not just a moment. I think it's hopefully something that will continue throughout the generations, and we see a greater realization that city planning is something that we all need to care about and devote some attention to.
The second reason we're seeing young people be interested and city planning content is having a moment is because they're coming up against the realities of challenges that can be maybe solved by better urban planning. I mean, I'm working with students who have a hard time paying for housing, right? You know, they may want to ride their bike to campus, but they can't because the bike infrastructure is not great. They're just 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, like all young people. But I think, again, they're more empowered than ever, thanks to social media. So I'm really happy that we're having a moment. And I think that's one of the great things about doing YouTube and also being a college professor is I also get to work with these young people every single day and hear what they're thinking about.
Meghan Stromberg: So we talked about some of your videos going viral, which is always very exciting for a YouTuber. But what about for the profession? Do you think planning going viral could change things? Will we see changes in demographics in the profession, or maybe even how we define urban planning?
Dave Amos: I certainly hope so. And I think that greater exposure to urban planning concepts through places like YouTube can only be good. I think it remains to be seen what the long-term impacts of that are. This is like my researcher hat coming on here. You know, we can't make the correlation just yet, but based on my own anecdotal data, I mean, in this the APA conference, I have been stopped by numerous students who said that seeing my content and the content of other folks on YouTube made them want to go into the career of urban planning. Again, that's one of my favorite comments to get. I'm hopeful that folks who decide not to become urban planners still have this additional knowledge base.
I found that when I was a planner, and I was leading community workshops, you'd have community members who didn't even understand the basics of, say, how housing is produced, for example. So you'd have to do so much background research. But if we can get this information out so that the average person coming to a community workshop just has a little bit more background information about what's going into planning and the development of urban policy, I think that's only a good thing. And hopefully it can start a conversation in a different place than where it normally gets started when we do a planning process.
Meghan Stromberg: I want to finish up our conversation with some recommendations from you. We are really finding out that YouTube and TikTok and other social media platforms have a real power and can be really great tools when it comes to engagement for urban planning. And I wonder, how would you like to see planners use social media to connect with their communities and share the work that they're doing?
Dave Amos: Yeah, that's a great question. And I want to be clear that, again, as I mentioned before, my work is often not directed at planners, so I am in awe of planners. I'm a planner. I think that they do great work, so I don't ever want to dictate that planners need to do things a certain way. But I will say that just from my experience on social media, I think planners just need to be aware that social media is just media for most people, right? It is where you get all information. And unfortunately, we've seen the demise of traditional news media, so social media, for better or worse, is stepping in to fill that void.
Now, one of the best ways I've seen social media being used from a personal perspective is, I live in the city of San Luis Obispo, and that city does a great job of before a council meeting, on Instagram, will tell you all the topics on the agenda in Instagram-friendly format. And then while you're scrolling through your cat videos or whatever on Instagram, later they'll tell you everything that happened at the council meeting. So I can be kept abreast of all of the council proceedings without ever having to go to a council meeting or even tune in to the council meetings. I find it to be extremely effective, and it's not that hard. And then I can follow up if it's something important, like they just dedicated some new bike lanes. That's amazing. I can go to the ribbon cutting, and now I know. That being in the flow of everybody's feed is just really important, and it doesn't need to be flashy. I don't think we need to have somebody on TikTok trying to do all the dances at the city council.
Meghan Stromberg: That would be very cool, though.
Dave Amos: I mean if you’ve got the moves, you’ve got to flaunt it. I agree. You don't have to pander. You just need to provide the information where people are. All of our feeds are smorgasbords. But being present, I think, is the most important, and giving the information to stay informed because, again, nobody's reading the newspaper anymore, so you’ve got to have that information somewhere. So I'm happy that the city of San Luis Obispo—plug to the city planners there—are doing it. But I think more places need to keep doing that and providing information.
Meghan Stromberg: Well, thanks very much, Dave. Dave Amos is again a YouTube sensation as well as an assistant professor in the City and Regional Planning Department at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.
Dave Amos: Again, I'm so happy to be on this podcast because I'm a fan. You've interviewed so many amazing guests, so I'm just honored to be in the same group as them. And thanks to all the folks who watch on YouTube, and I'll keep making the videos.
Meghan Stromberg: Thanks for listening to another episode of People Behind the Plans, an APA podcast. If you want to hear more great conversations with experts from across the planning landscape, subscribe to APA podcasts, so you'll never miss an episode. And if you like what you're hearing, rate us on iTunes. You can find People Behind the Plans on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also find our entire library of episodes at planning.org/podcast.