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Internet Memes Are Bringing New Urbanism to the Masses

Social media is turning younger generations into urban policy wonks. Our cities have always been a source of interest, but the serious work of urban planning, zoning, and land-use policies has typically been left to those with enough time and expertise to study the issues and present reports at mind-numbing city council meetings. The internet is rapidly changing that by democratizing the politics of urban planning. Memes, Tik Tok videos, Facebook groups, and Reddit threads focused on the built environment go viral daily. All the attention is certainly raising awareness, but it may not be having an impact to go along with the heightened awareness. 

On Facebook, 220,000 mostly young users participate in an ongoing urbanism and transportation conversation in the New Urbanist Memes For Transit-Oriented Teens (NUMTOT) group. What started as a joke has become a place of serious discussion, regularly tackling issues like single-family zoning, public transit proliferation, and urban sprawl. Now several years old and covered by several major news outlets, NUMTOTS has spun off dozens more related Facebook groups, creating a category of content that’s grown bigger than the group itself. Young people are largely shut out of homeownership, forced to rent and rely on subpar public transit as the poorest generations in American history are fighting back against the ‘Boomer’ NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard). They are doing this by using social media to form an online army of YIMBYs (Yes In My Back Yard) focused on developing more housing, transit, and public infrastructure.  

“Social media is allowing media to be democratized in a way that has never been seen before,” Jacob Gotta, a viral urbanism Tik Tok Creator said. Gotta was studying political science at the University of California Santa Barbara when he first started to learn about how political issues around urban planning impacted our cities. “I kept coming back to housing and political issues, why there was so much racial segregation? What I wanted to do is start by talking about why things are so expensive here,” he said. “I started talking about freeways and how they started. Then I started researching housing to understand why we built in the suburbs.” 

Today Gotta has 86,000 followers on Tik Tok, accumulating over 2 million likes on his videos. His viral videos are intensely detailed and well-produced, diving into specific city ordinances, history, and macroeconomic trends with the gusto of a trained urban planner. His Tik Tok bio claims his content is a ‘crash course in housing & urban development.’ It’s hard to disagree. Gotta is far from alone, the urbanism hashtag on Tik Tok has over 5.6 million views. Mr. Barricade, aka Vingesh Swaminathan, a trained civil engineer, has nearly 465,0000 Tik Tok followers amassing almost 15 million likes. Mr. Barricade operates a chat group on the messaging app Discord where 1,500 members keep up with each other, always debating the latest urbanism issues, crusading for more bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly developments. Tik Tok and Discord are only the latest iterations. Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and other social media platforms have been watching urbanism conversations grow for years. Twitter users in particular have flocked to accounts focused on placemaking, housing, transportation, and urban planning. Several major urbanism accounts, like NUMTOTS, have a presence across multiple platforms. Beneath the memes is an in-depth understanding of urban planning and the built environment that’s creating a critical discourse about the future of our cities.

“We pride ourselves on being interested in these issues, and making lowbrow jokes about complex urban planning processes,” Jonathan Marty, a co-founder of NUMTOS, told The Guardian. “Memes are the first major form of media that people my age have created, and kind of own.”

Progressive housing policies are just one part of the new breed of urbanism. Parking minimums, sustainable development, environmentally friendly design, inclusive neighborhoods, accessible public transit, food deserts, quality architecture, green spaces, and walkability are all major issues floating around the new urbanism discourse. At its core, ‘new’ urbanism is an international movement rethinking the built environment to make it more equitable for all, not just people with a home and a car. Online conversations are bringing the best urban design policies from around the globe into people’s social media feeds. Every few months an aerial photo of Barcelona’s immaculate grid layout goes viral. The classical beauty of Moscow subway stations is often compared to dilapidated stops in New York City. Hong Kong’s infamous Kowloon Walled City, once the densest urban area on the planet, makes frequent appearances. Dutch cycling highways, filled with hundreds of locals commuting by bike, are looked upon with envy. A proposed high-speed rail map connecting major American metros sends New Urbanists into a flurry. Pictures of vehicles blocking bike lanes, a cardinal sin, are looked upon with disgust. The quality (or lack) of bus stops is always under scrutiny. 

If all this sounds left-leaning, that’s because it is. Much of the concern about urban planning stems from the built environment’s impact on the climate crisis. Efforts to ban cars, cut air travel, and expand rail networks are driven by the need to cut carbon emissions. Young urbanists see a direct link between housing, transportation, and economic mobility. During the 2020 election NUMTOT endorsed Senator Bernie Sanders for President, which the candidate formally thanked them for. Several prominent urbanists on social media are open members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). But far from being outright socialists, many YIMBYs are pro-development because they understand how capitalism and the free market can be used to make cities better, producing more commerce, making them more neoliberal than they are socialist. Building a tent big enough for socialists and market urbanists has been a challenge for YIMBY groups like NUMTOTs and others. 

New urbanism trends among young progressive Democratic voters were what led to Republican rallying cries that Democrats were going to ‘abolish the suburbs’ during the recent election cycle. Most urbanism conversations stay out of national politics though. Talking about cities and land use is an inherently local endeavor. YIMBY wrath is aimed primarily at local leaders protecting single-family zoning, expanding highway budgets, and gentrifying neighborhoods. 

There’s no doubt the memes are funny and insightful, but how much impact they’re actually having is questionable. Despite broad awareness about the housing crisis, traffic, poor public transit options, and unsustainable urban sprawl, city policies have hardly changed. Memes are words, not action. Engaging in the urban planning conversation in your local area means being heard by the right people. They’re not on Tik Tok, they’re at City Council meetings and community review panels. The machine of urban planning is a slow-moving beast that grinds down the opposition with meeting after meeting, review after review, requiring far more focus and attention than watching a 30-sec video does. 

“The optimist in me hopes that there will be change,” Gotta said. “The pessimist in me looks at how Zoom city council meetings are still the same people. I hope that is going to change.” 

Even when urban planning-minded citizens make their voice heard, they’re often simply noted and ignored. Allowing activists the chance to speak on an issue in a formal meeting doesn’t mean you have to listen or take them seriously. In Houston, the Texas Department of Transportation has proposed a $7.5 billion rework of the dreaded I-45, rerouting and expanding the thoroughfare around the other side of downtown, paving over large portions of one of Houston’s most historic and growing neighborhoods, EaDo. Community advocates have been vocal at every meeting and review, highlighting the harm of TxDOT’s half-baked plan. TxDOT has plowed ahead anyway, drawing the ire of Harris County’s top elected official, Judge Lina Hidalgo, whose office filed a lawsuit against the Texas transportation agency, claiming community concerns have not been addressed. The highway will pave over 160 single-family homes, 433 units apartments, 344 businesses, and five places of worship. Hidalgo penned a letter to the Federal Highway Authority asking for federal intervention. The FHA told TxDOT to halt construction, citing civil rights concerns, until the agency can investigate complaints. Whether any of the local or federal concerns over the project will matter remains to be seen. Clearly TxDOT is in hot water, but the agency controls billions in funds with few formal mechanisms for local oversight. 

“TxDOT has brought this upon themselves,” said Michael Skelly, an organizer of the Make I-45 Better Coalition, told the Houston Chronicle. “For many years, organizations and individuals from across the city have been making suggestions to TxDOT that would improve the project, reduce flooding, save taxpayers money, minimize displacement and enhance safety. TxDOT has ignored everyone.”

Texas is the starkest example, but all around the country, cities and states are ignoring growing land use-related crises despite vocal concerns from a growing number of residents. Los Angeles has a housing crisis fueling a homelessness crisis. Still, nearly half of all land in L.A. is zoned exclusively for single-family, a typical pattern all across California. Last year state lawmakers attempted to address the issue head-on with SB 50, which would allow denser multifamily developments and limit exclusion zones. After a lengthy debate, the bill failed for the third time, even though two-thirds of Californians support passing it. The bill was framed as a middle finger to homeowners that would cost them thousands in home equity. Similar efforts in Virginia and Maryland have failed. 

That’s why so much of the discussion around new urbanism has generational undertones. At just 47.9 percent, millennials have the lowest homeownership of any generation. By comparison, 78 percent of boomers own a home. At age 30, only 42 percent of Millennials own a home, compared to 48 percent of Gen-X and 51 percent of Boomers. Nearly 20 percent of Millenials have given up on homeownership altogether. With so much urban planning centered around single-family zoning, younger generations feel the basic principles of urban planning are stacked against them, adding yet another hurdle to overcome. Urbanism that promotes density and public transportation is a way to fight back against the calcified public policies that have created such a stark difference in generational wealth. 

Vaughn Stewart and Ibraheem Samirah, Democratic state delegates from Maryland who brought bills to end single-family zoning in the state to the floor are a perfect example of how popular urbanism backed by young people is failing to achieve its goals. Both Millennials, many of Samirah’s and Stewart’s most stalwart supporters are progressive DSA members. The package of three bills, dubbed “Homes For All”, was funded by a huge $2.5 billion dollar bond and the reinstatement of Maryland’s Millionaire Tax. Their approach has softened, but they admit initial efforts were misguided. 

“In some way, I was deliberately trying to be incendiary,” Stewart admitted to WAMU. He wanted to “move the Overton window,” or expand the scope of ideas up for consideration in Annapolis. 

TikTok star Mr. Barricade has had some small-time success running an urban planning consulting firm. He helped redesign a single intersection in San Jose, California, adding protected bike lanes, bike-only traffic lights, and barricades to protect cyclists from traffic. Backed by public comments from a community getting more engaged with urbanism, cities like Minneapolis and states like Oregon have recently voted to end single-family exclusive zoning after several attempts. In California, Sacramento and Berkley voted to allow fourplexes in single-family exclusion zones. Wins for housing advocates are few and far between, often requiring multiple attempts to pass. Understanding what impact those changes have on local single-family and multifamily housing markets will take time. 

“For a lot of young people like me, we know we can fix our urban environment,” Mr. Barricade told Mercury News. “We may not want to live our lives in a car. We want to plan our life differently. Tik Tok for me is a way to get that word out there that cities can be built differently, and people are noticing.”

City building video games like SimCity and Cities: Skylines have helped fuel young people’s interest in urban planning. First released in 1989, the game teaches players the basics of traffic management, commercial development, and municipal finance. The game’s extensive instruction manual included the first-ever game bibliography, directing players to read the works of city planning experts like Kevin Lynch and Le Corbusier. SimCity’s creator, Will Wright, admits the game was inspired by Urban Dynamics, a complex urban planning text written by an MIT engineer. Success in the games is defined by growing populations, affordable housing, short commutes, building resilience, and low pollution. What was meant to be a niche game for architects and city planners found a massive fan base. In many ways, the game’s success parallels the rise of new urbanism in younger generations. A niche interest went viral, particularly among young people. Combined, SimCity’s 13 iterations and the Cities series have sold tens of millions of copies, influencing gamers, urban planners, and the like for nearly 30 years. 

“That’s what really got me thinking about urban planning. SimCity, where you put in trains, where you help people move,” Cuong Trinh, who now serves as acting senior transportation planner for Caltrans in Downtown L.A. told the L.A. Times. The paper tracked a dozen professional urban planners who can trace their interest in the subject back to the games. 

Through the game’s evolution, players have even experienced the same issues in real-life urban planning. A 2013 version of the game forbids certain types of zoning, preventing players from building anything resembling a modern city. The game may also help explain why the robust interest in urbanism hasn’t achieved its goals. In SimCity, the player makes unilateral decisions, avoiding the messy local politics that define urban planning. No developments need parking, racial demographics are non-existent, traffic doesn’t produce fatalities, mixed-use zoning is nowhere to be found. If the game was anything like real life, it wouldn’t be fun. Doing what it takes to create a lasting impact in real-world urban planning isn’t fun either. 

“I would say the impact of New Urbanism has been muted so far. This is a very hard problem to solve and there is a lot of inertia against land-use reform because we’ve built up our environment in this manner for decades, so it’ll be hard to turn around,” Austin Pooley, a local Millennial neoliberal leader in Houston said. When not working for one of the largest energy companies in Texas, Pooley is a passionate advocate for New Urbanist policies across the country. “I would rate the impact of urbanist social media as a 3/10. There are certainly successes in the U.S. that you can point to, but there’s still so much work to be done on this front.”

The inescapable fact for both older NIMBYs and younger YIMBYs is urban development, like politics, is a slow-moving process. No matter how good new ideas are, things don’t change overnight. In both politics and urban planning, there are exponentially more words discussing the issues than there are actions to solve them, but that doesn’t mean progress isn’t happening. New Urbanism has a solid foothold in practically every major American metro. Where New Urbanists have failed before, they will try again. California is once again trying to pass housing reforms, this time with SB-9 and SB-10. Prospects for both look dim. Defeating them in the State Assembly won’t solve the housing crisis and it won’t stop New Urbanists. For young urbanists, fighting against the relics of dated land-use policies will be a lifelong affair, a war of attrition to right the wrongs of the past and lay the groundwork for a better civic future.

Associate Editor
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