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CDAC Online:
building a virtual community design & planning office

A Paper By

Author: william george paul, Ph.D. Student, Virginia Tech / CDAC web designer
E-mail: wmpaul@blacksburg.net

Too often human-computer interaction (HCI) research leaves out a key player in the wise use and revitalization of our neighborhoods, rural lands, and preserved spaces: the citizen. High tech tools are super expensive, often funded by corporations or national government agencies for exclusive knowledge bases. HCI research is not "trickling down" to the level of activists and local governments. It is clear that virtual design languages, like VRML, and online access to GIS data bases are challenging the traditional ways that we have devised urban and regional plans. In this paper, planning and design principles for the next century are framed by four critical concepts: collaboration, access, virtuality and sustainability. To read our white paper on how the CDAC Online process might work in the year 1999, please see the CDAC Online White Paper #1.

Collaborative tools from electronic sketch pads, to personal digital assistants and computer generated virtual worlds are of little use to us without substantial investment in online community building and design processes, like the Blacksburg Electronic Village and the electronic charrette, which are supported by ongoing public / private support. Sustainability is defined as the continued support of long term public-private partnership building, the construction of global democratic participation networks (i.e.- equal access to technology) for all citizens, and a focus on the not-for-profit sector as a bridge builder between the corporate and big government players.

The CDAC Online project is an emerging virtual design and planning office for both academic research and community projects. Our objectives are to:

(1) Provide expanded public and university services, education and project participation.
(2) Provide a web template site for departments and citizen groups to use to establish their own
interactive web site and electronic processes.
(3) Provide new Information Technology (IT) application design research and applications
to all online users.
(4) Increase external funding available to faculty at Virginia Tech for research, teaching, and
extension by creating partnerships with corporations, businesses,
government and professional organizations.

Findings are yet to be fully realized for CDAC Online because due to insufficient research and application in this field. Online templates and tools are available but are not always coupled to the main concepts listed above: Netscape Corporation's Virtural Office, NetMeeting from Microsoft, The Virtual Campus at the University of Sydney - Key Centre for Design Computing, and the U.K.'s Online Planning Web Site. It is hoped that this Conference will bring researchers together to compare notes on the concept of building a virtual design & planning office.


Since August 1988, The Community Design Assistance Center (CDAC) has assisted approximately 80 Virginia communities in improving their quality of life by providing and design services. Housed within the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, CDAC is staffed by students and faculty from throughout the University. CDAC offers planning and design assistance to communities that are otherwise unable to afford professional consultants. While providing both rural and urban areas with innovative ideas and direction, CDAC also provides students and staff with financial assistance and experience related to their education. CDAC often serves as a facilitator in public meetings and workshops, and conducts surveys to discover how to best meet the needs of the community in Virginia and beyond the Commonwealth. Although CDAC is presently providing a valuable service to approximately 8 - 12 communities per year, there are numerous towns that we cannot serve at this time.

Vision Statement
With the increasing use of the Internet for education and design communications, an important next step for the Center is the deployment of our expertise on the web thereby offering scholars, staff, students and citizens the opportunity to accomplish online research and to collaborate in a global, electronic environment. Because its online and electronic services and databases are available to anyone with Internet access, CDAC's ability to expand its service base within the State of Virginia and beyond and to conduct collaborative research would be greatly expanded.

While CDAC Online is an Internet work in progress, there are "off-line" design research applications as well. Travel expenses can be reduced or eliminated with this Internet process and partnerships quickly forged at all levels of expertise. CDAC Online will provide a flexible, collaborative, and interdepartmental research forum where scholars, faculty and students could work from a distance via personal computer, with each other at the Center's office, or in combination. Experts from great distances and / or nearby citizens could equally access this mediated design environment to participate in charrettes or conferences sponsored by the Center. CDAC Online staff and scholars would pursue grant funding, and provide greatly enhanced visibility for these significant information technologies at Virginia Tech by acting as a single resource to other design centers, citizens groups, universities, government and business. CDAC Online is envisioned as a local / global electronic design agora - a place and space for collaborative projects, the creation and testing of new electronic tools and processes, and a web-linked, searchable data source for planning and design projects. Valuable lessons regarding CDAC's project work can be provided to all communities with access to the web. CDAC will also be able to engage faculty in all units of the University much more readily. The same is true for interactions with private professionals, businesses and industry as anyone could log in and see what projects we had accomplished and what was in process. This would enable CDAC work to become more accessible and interdisciplinary.


[ 1 ] Provide expanded public and university services, education and project participation via:

+ electronic tools / processes - charrettes, workshops and conferences - In conjunction with the CDAC Online Site,
planning and design events or teaching workshops are possible which would link faculty, businesses and citizens online from local and distance places.

+ database resources: project archive, design center and other www links - CDAC projects would be organized into a project archive for Internet access and key site linkages would be maintained for educational and communication use.

+ CDAC member listserv and/or e-mail newsletter - Ongoing project and conference news is easily facilitated through electronic networks.

[ 2 ] Provide a web template site for departments and citizen groups to use to establish their own interactive web site and electronic processes. CDAC Online would be a design template for other departments and outside organizations to follow as they create and maintain their own Internet function(s).

[ 3 ] Provide new Information Technology application design research, including:

+ CAD network supported by LAN server - The traditional hand drawn techniques of landscape architecture are now joined by computer-aided design (CAD) tools which the Center can teach to students starting Fall 1997. The LAN is needed to run the CAD application(s) in a professional office setting.

+ GIS for the Web (refer to VT Office for GIS/RS Research) - In conjunction with the Virginia Tech Office for GIS/RS Research, research on GIS applications for the web is needed.

+ CAVE & VRML (virtual reality landscapes) - Interdisclipinary explorations in virtual reality is one promising frontier for CDAC, whereby landscapes or urban scenes from another country could be simulated and redesigned through a CDAC project team.

+ (audio / visual collaborations on the net) - Research in live (i.e.- real time) collaborations could involve any department on campus and would play a likely support role in the electronic charrette or workshops (above).

[ 4 ] Increase external funding available to faculty at Virginia Tech for research, teaching, and extension by creating partnerships with corporations, businesses, government and professional organizations.

Conclusion / Beginning

The mission of CDAC is to help communities in the region improve their quality of life by providing planning and design assistance and to provide a place for students and faculty to collaborate. What we truly need in a society of throw away media and abandoned shopping malls is information and communication tools and processes that connect us, build diversity, strengthen community, and build partnerships. We need to share important information, and teach each other ways to address our problems and learn to envision the road ahead and prepare for change. CDAC Online would facilitate democratic principles on a global scale and bring us together. For instance, a group of citizens could meet in a small Virginia town or neighborhood to share ideas about a current planning proposal and converse with Virginia Tech faculty and staff via electronic link (i.e. - CDAC listserv or live charrette) rather than having to meet face-to-face.

With the Internet, the class room and the region have expanded to the entire world. Examples of online networks range from the City of Seattle's online Neighborhood Planning Office to Howard Reingold's Virtual Community Center, to online communities such as our Blacksburg Electronic Village. Virginia Tech's web site is accessed hundreds of times each day and more courses are available online each semester. Businesses, arts groups, and sports teams all have some depth of Internet presence today and more web sites go online each week.

In the planning and design field, there are many excellent web sites and tools emerging, including M.I.T.'s Urban Ecology Web Studio where faculty and staff assist local community design projects; the University of Illinois - East St. Louis Project that features an extensive database from U.I. - Landscape Architecture's work to better the environment of this city; and the electronic charrette events by the Urban and Regional Studies Institute at Mankato State University that brought experts and local citizens together on the Internet to address issues of historic preservation and city design. The University of Buffalo provides an online database called PAIRC for planners and architects that serves practitioners and citizens from around the globe each day.

Because development and access to the Internet has been dominated first and foremost by universities and private businesses, CDAC Online could be available to small towns where education and collaboration through electronic tools and processes is most needed.

We thank Dr. A.M. Cohill, Director of the Blacksburg Electronic Village, and CDAC Director Lee Skabelund of Virginia Tech for their vision and ongoing support of online research processes for the Internet.

Key Web Sites
Community Design Assistance Center

University of Sydney - The Virtual Campus
Key Centre for Design Computing

Online Planning (U.K.)

M.I.T.'s Urban Ecology Web Studio http://web.mit.edu/dusp/urban-ecology/

M.I.T. - Design Studio of the Future

Human Interface Technology Lab - University of Washington

University of Illinois - East St. Louis Project

the electronic charrette I and II -
Urban and Regional Studies Institute,
Mankato State University

PAIRC (Cyburbia) -
The University of Buffalo

Contact CDAC:

100 N. Main Street (0450)
Blacksburg, VA 24061
(540) 231- 5644
Fax: (540) 231- 6089
E-mail: CDAC@vt.edu


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