Earlier this year, students in Kent Macdonald’s and Stacey White’s third-year architectural design studios began working on a project to reconceive the town of Paradise, California. The town had been devasted two months prior by the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, with 86 lives lost and over 18,000 structures destroyed.
Over the course of two quarters, the students worked to re-envision Paradise as a more socially cohesive, ecologically sustainable, and environmentally secure community while exploring how architectural building projects could realize these goals and additional priorities based on feedback from the city’s residents.
In the year following the Camp Fire and the students’ projects, Californians continue to face the threat of devastating wildfires. The state’s most recent fire season resulted in over 250,000 acres burned, and efforts to negate the risk of wildfire by PG&E and other utility companies caused millions of Californians to lose power. While some areas of the state were spared, an estimated 2.7 million Californians live in very high fire hazard severity zones. Across the world, fires have raged in Alaska, the Amazon, Australia, Indonesia, Siberia, and elsewhere, burning tens of millions of acres and releasing increasingly harmful levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Wildfires have become more common, deadlier, and have spread to new corners of the world.
In October 2019, the work from Macdonald’s studio, including his students’ work on planning research, precedents and goals (some of which include the work of White’s students), and 16 individual building projects were uploaded to Cal Poly’s Digital Commons, the university’s institutional repository, making the work accessible to individuals and communities around the world. Operated through the Kennedy Library, the Digital Commons collects, preserves and provides access to scholarly work created at Cal Poly.
The “Re-envisioning Paradise: Cal Poly Students Initiate a Path to Recovery” collections contain the course and assignment descriptions, group work with proposals for large-scale initiatives for Paradise and research on previous planning projects, and the students’ individual building projects.
Uploading the work of an entire class was a unique project for the library team that manages the Digital Commons. The library resource is known as a place for students to upload their senior projects and master’s theses, but it is rare for the work of an entire two-quarter course to be made openly available online through Digital Commons.
Macdonald wanted to highlight just how unique his students’ projects were. “The project was so different from the kind that design instructors normally ask students to undertake,” he said. “We often seek to engage the students with real-world projects, but it’s obviously rare that a project will have the particular emotional resonance and immediacy of the one in Paradise.”
To make this possible, a library team that included Research, Scholarship and Publishing Specialist Danielle Daugherty, College of Architecture and Environmental Design Librarian Jesse Vestermark, College of Science and Mathematics Librarian Jeanine Scaramozzino, and fourth-year architecture major and Kennedy Library student assistant Ali Chen worked to ensure that the class’s work was accessible, discoverable, and compliant with copyright laws while keeping the effect and spirit of the original presentations.
While the students in Macdonald’s course had the opportunity to present their ideas to Paradise residents and lawmakers in person, the library team ensured that the information could be accessible and conveyed to viewers across the globe. To make the work ADA-compliant, all images and design drawings within the students’ projects had to be described in words so that those with visual impairments could understand the content using screen-reader technology. Additionally, some posters needed to be reworked to change text sizes and uses of color and contrast. Throughout the process, the team consulted with John Lee, an assistive technology specialist in Cal Poly’s Disability Resource Center, who provided guidance on the scope of accommodations needed and technical advice.
Chen, who was one of 36 in the architectural design studios, was brought on as a student assistant to provide graphical and textual editing of the student presentations, source and credit third party images that were used in the student panels, and check and edit student work for online and digital accessibility compliance. Macdonald called Chen “the perfect choice” to perform the work.
“After working on this project for six months in studio, it was an exciting opportunity to help get my classmates’ and my work uploaded to Digital Commons,” Chen said. “I hope that our work can be a resource not just to the people of Paradise, but to communities around the world.”
Additionally, for the first time, the Digital Commons offered thumbnail previews of documents that were available to be viewed and downloaded. As the work for the Paradise project was primarily visual, the library team needed to best present the original material in an online format. Using a PDF preview to display each presentation keeps the visual nature of the project while still allowing readers and researchers to view and download the full projects.
Macdonald provided abstracts for each section of the course materials and worked with the library to produce key words to tag each individual project. These key words are the terms that are most important to each piece and make the documents and work discoverable by users outside of Cal Poly, especially through search engines like Google.
“I trust that all members of our campus community will view the students’ projects in the Digital Commons and see that the library supports institutional repository offers to make all Cal Poly student and faculty work known to the world,” said Adriana Popescu, Dean of Library Services. “I invite anyone beginning a new research project to work with the library at the outset and think about how we can partner to make sure Cal Poly’s distinctive Learn by Doing pedagogy and its outcomes can be freely shared by the library-supported institutional repository, the Cal Poly Digital Commons.”
Since “Re-envisioning Paradise: Cal Poly Students Initiate a Path to Recovery” were uploaded to the Digital Commons, documents from the students’ project have been downloaded nearly 500 times by readers in countries from Australia, Germany, Japan and Nigeria. Within these geographical regions, the work has been accessed by universities, research centers, and even government agencies. What began as a project for a small California community has become a resource available across the globe, for any community to utilize.
“It is truly humbling to be a part of this incredible collaboration that draws from the talents of my colleagues in the library and across campus,” said the library’s Daugherty. “Re-envisioning Paradise is an exemplar project in Digital Commons as it not only makes accessible the relevant and insightful research of Cal Poly students, it also demonstrates the possibilities and successes of worldwide open access to scholarship.
“I have no doubt that the impact of this project will be long lasting, and its breadth of reach across the world will be boundless.” Daugherty continued. “I hope that Digital Commons continues to shine a light on groundbreaking Cal Poly student and faculty research.”
“Having this work in the Digital Commons is a reminder of how we all need to think about the perils of climate change,” said Macdonald. “Making this work accessible and sharing it with the world enables more of us to reflect on the circumstances that took us to Paradise to begin with, to remember the devastation we saw and the people we met.”