TikTok launched in 2017 and has become a defining feature of Gen Z. Its user base—estimated to be 85 million in the US alone—has diversified, however, and spans all age groups, spawning a panoply of content beyond viral hijinks. In its short lifetime, the social media platform has given rise to a new cohort of influencers and trends disrupting how people engage with public health, politics, research, and most recently, war. And if you know whom to follow—such as the economics professor tackling tricky questions and the teacher demystifying sixth-grade math—both Houston-area educators, it should be noted—TikTok can make you a little smarter.
Notably, urbanism has found a home on the platform. Searching TikTok's hashtags is a good way to dive in. Videos with the tag #urbanplanning have, as of this writing, accumulated a respectable 120 million views. The tags #publictransit and #urbanism each have 35-40 million views; #gentrification has over 100 million. Even #localgovernment has 7.5 million. Many of these videos are surprisingly good—often cheeky, sometimes vulgar and occasionally funny—and insightful. Making this content appealing and accessible is clearly a good thing, particularly if it helps produce more awareness around better cities. Even with these seemingly eye-popping attention metrics, it pales in comparison to TikTok's signature viral content, which attract literally trillions of views.
Here are five accounts—some silly, some serious—that have built large followings while tackling urbanism, and ranked by their total followers. Disclaimer: There's no guarantee that following any of these accounts will protect you from seeing objectionable material or completely unrelated suggested videos by the TikTok algorithm. Enter at your own risk.
By far, @mrbarricade has the biggest reach of any of the accounts tackling city topics—he’s got 1.4 million followers and over 54 million video likes.
You’ll have to wade through an uncomfortable number of lip-syncs and dance moves that have nothing to do with cities or barricades to get to the good stuff, however. (Unless lip-syncs are your thing—this is TikTok, after all, and this content probably helps boost his profile to millions of potential new users.)
Mr. Barricade—or in real life, Vignesh Swaminathan, CEO of the Cupertino-based design firm Crossroad Lab—has some gems to offer, including videos explaining better road design for bicyclists, a look at how to advocate for community benefits from developments, and a video explaining how young people can get more engaged in city politics.
As he told the San Jose Mercury News: “For a lot of young people like me, we know we can fix our urban environment. … We may not want to live our lives in a car. We want to plan our life differently. TikTok for me is a way to get that word out there that cities can be built differently, and people are noticing.”
With close to 210,000 followers and approaching 5 million “likes” on his videos, @TalkingCities is one of the most consistently good and most prolific urban-focused accounts on TikTok. (Bonus: No lip-syncs!) Paul Stout, whose day job is with a firm that’s planning a car-free residential rental development in Arizona called Culdesac, preaches people-scaled design and extols the virtues of urban walkability. Most of his videos are aimed at explaining why things are the way they are—or why they aren’t—in short, accessible takes. He was even featured by the American Planning Association’s podcast.
His videos offer great insights into good and bad city structures, housing, transit and building design. In one video, Stout makes an impassioned plea for prioritizing city design and architecture: “Cities are inherited. And because cities are inherited, we have an obligation to future generations to build better.”
@talkingcities Reply to @hamb0ne00 #greenscreen There is more to consider than just cost when building cities #urbanplanning #urbandesign #architecture #cities ♬ original sound - TalkingCities
Another civil engineer, Adam Weber, leads the @EverydayEngineering channel with an educational mix of explainer videos, hot takes on car transportation, and advocacy for pedestrians and bicyclists.
He’s got around 125,000 followers and 2 million video likes—an impressive following for someone who focuses purely on city and transit design issues. He even has a nice review of basic street drainage infrastructure that has almost 33,000 likes alone, and his “day in the life of a civil engineer” is good for nerdy laughs.
Approaching 120,000 followers, “NYC Sustainability Phil” has a channel that is geared toward climate change and environmental concerns, but because so many features of cities and urban life play into that discussion, he veers into economics and urbanism territory quite often.
Recently, he’s done a few explainers on housing, discussing the merits of dense mid-rise housing and ground-floor amenities like grocery stores. He also takes on the ills of exclusionary zoning, arguing that it made cities slow or unable to provide adequate housing in city centers. Neophytes to the discussion on congestion pricing might learn something from his explainer on the topic: “If you’ve flown on a plane in the holidays or bought an IMAX ticket, you kind of know what congestion pricing is.”
He also has this great breakdown of a chart mapping urban density and energy expenditures on transportation—note Houston’s position on the top left, the high end of energy/low density.
The @pedestriandignity account, run by author and self-described walking artist Jonathon Stalls, has attracted almost 100,000 followers in less than a year focusing exclusively on advocating for better sidewalks, crosswalks, public transit and other critical infrastructure.
The account routinely flags obstructions to sidewalks and other bad situations, such as the lack of bus shelters in windy, freezing weather, and sidewalks to nowhere. But most importantly, the channel focuses on encouraging people to get active in their communities and local government to advocate for pedestrians, people in wheelchairs and others in transit planning. He also features videos submitted by other users highlighting walkability issues in other cities.
To bring it full circle, check out this clip from @pedestriandignity featuring @mrbarricade’s handiwork in an intersection redesign project.
Yes, there is an overwhelming amount of bad content, misinformation and time-wasting that comes along with any social media platform, and TikTok is known for blasting viral content at users and letting the algorithm decide what comes up next. But the experience can be curated.
This post featured five accounts worth following, and there are several more worth checking out with smaller followings and perhaps less consistently produced content, such as @architectiktok, @makeamericawalkable, @urban_avenues and @citybuilding101. Following these could add some decent balance to your social media diet.
Clearly, TikTok is emerging as a space of discussion of important topics that can influence conversations on other platforms and in other spaces—making it a potentially powerful force for change. Perhaps that’s a TikTok challenge worth sticking around to see.