CRP Design Studios apply Learn-by-Doing Principles during the Pandemic

By Amy Uthenpong (she/they)  

During the Spring of 2020, two studios in Cal Poly’s City and Regional Planning program put the Learn-by-Doing principle to the test during unprecedented circumstances. During the COVID-19 pandemic, studio professors Dr. Dandekar and Dr. del Rio oversaw twelve MCRP and thirty-eight BSCRP students who collaborated with Santa Clara County and the unincorporated area of San Martin. The objective was to compose a Strategic Development Plan and Urban Design Visions. This project has received two awards from American Planning Association California chapters: an Academic Award for Excellence from the Central Coast Section; and an Empowerment Award of Excellence from the Northern Section. However, it first began under humble, resilient circumstances: a shortened nine-week quarter, shelter in place regulations, and remote work during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

When Santa Clara County’s Department of Planning and Development contacted Cal Poly, the objective was to brainstorm future long-range planning concepts and scenarios for the San Martin community. San Martin, a community 30 miles south of San Jose, is known for its rich agricultural industry and rural history. San Martin faces threats of urban encroachment and local displacement due to rippling housing impacts from the Bay Area tech industry. Within the past 30 years, a housing surge led to 21,171 acres of farm and range land being lost. Without intervention, numerous consequences could ensue: diminished regional climate resiliency, depleted local food resources, and displacement of locals and farmland. 

The undergraduate students were tasked to develop Urban Design Visions for San Martin’s village core using planning outcome guidelines. The goals were to protect the historical rural sense of place, support agriculture and the diversification of the economy, and uplift the anticipated growth of tourism. From April to June, the project was divided into phases: (1) background research and site assessment, (2) concept development, and (3) project development. Prior to the pandemic, the studio had class field trips to the site, laboratory studio formats, and extensive community interactions. 

With a mere two week notice of the virtual class requirement, professors and students sought creative ways to conduct site assessment and community engagement. BSCRP student Christabel Soria Mendoza explained, “the project was unlike the others because we were in a virtual setting where we could not visit the site as a class, lean over our studio tables and brainstorm or raise our hand and ask for our professors to walk over. The most difficult part was splitting the work evenly through Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator. We solved the issue by assigning people to specific roles and they would fulfill the tasks in that role throughout the project.”

Simultaneously, the graduate studio students focused on a holistic Strategic Development Plan with emphasis on rural culture, agricultural preservation, and small-scale agro-tourism. The project consisted of transitional phases: (1) interview members of the community, execute site-specific studies, and review relevant plans and documents; (2) develop concept plans around rural character, agricultural preservation, agro-tourism; (3) develop seven strategies of change. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the process required rethinking traditional ways of the development process.  Ayla-Louise Mateo, MCRP student, was initially concerned about making a difference to this community because of the online setting, wanting to protect “low-income residents affected by home and rental costs.” MCRP student Josie Buchanan adds that “at many times it was difficult to focus on work with many students having personal health and familial issues come up at this time.” 

With resilient teamwork and innovative problem-solving skills, the students utilized Google Maps and Zoom for touring San Martin and phones for stakeholder telephone interviews. Josie reflects that she was able to discover different ways to engage with the community as “people who typically would have a hard time coming to community forums because of work schedules or disabilities were able to have their voices heard.” With the help of student solidarity as well as support from professors and county officials, the graduate students presented their findings and strategies to the San Martin Planning Advisory Committee (SMPAC).

Despite the unforeseen challenges, the students produced two comprehensive reports: “San Martin Strategic Development Plan” and “Urban Design Visions for San Martin.” Soon after, the graduate students presented their findings to the Santa Clara County Planning Commission and the San Martin Advisory Committee. These two public hearings provided profound experience in public speaking, answering questions, and communicating with various publics. With the help of Cal Poly, the community of San Martin now moves forward with developing policies in the Santa Clara Valley Agricultural Plan. 

Cal Poly press release:


BSCRP Students Involved: Willie Amaya, Ryan Anderson, Nate Antepanko, Ida Araghieyan, Amelia Cane, David Choy, Jack Combs, Reid Crandell, Liam Crowley, Carlos Espinoza, Dominic Ferrari, Samuel Fluhman, Isaac Golf, Benjamin Ip, Will Jarrett

Nishita Kandikuppa, Vinson Kwan, Aidan Lebow, Ian Madrigal, Courtney Marchi, Tim McBirney, Henry McKay, Christabel Soria Mendoza, Eliza Meyers, Meredith Milam, Connor Miller, Abby Miramontes, Chris Murphy, Justin Nelms, Michael Pham, Peyton Ratto, Jessica Romero, Bailey Sullivan, Trisha Tran, Jack Wanner, Mitchell Wexler, Cameron Wilson, Wesley Wong

MCRP Students Involved: Saba Asghary, Cameron Bauer, Josephine Buchanan, Gabriela Cortez, Henry Eckold, Owen Goode, Christopher Hamma, Bryce Haney,

William Kwon, Ayla-Louise Mateo, Simon Poon, Ethan Thomas

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