January 5th, 2018

Connecting through the lens: Cross-cultural perspectives on urban design and water infrastructure using participatory photography as an observational learning tool

By Molly Gail Mehling, Gregory Galford, William Biss, Darlene Motley, Yandi Andri Yatmo and Paramita Atmodiwirjo

Mehling Article Icon

Link to Deepening Our Craft February 2017 JSE TOC

Mehling et al JSE Feb 2017 General PDF


A faculty-led trip to Indonesia provided a unique model in international sustainability education. Many factors were combined over time to build this experience. Chatham University (CU), the US partner, had been involved with Indonesian colleagues for several years in the United States-Indonesia Partnership Program (USIPP). Many smaller visits and conferences had been shared over the years, but the desire was to build a more advanced model. This experience looked at how water infrastructure impacts how and where people live. Students studied different housing types. It compared how an American city with an older infrastructure could be informed by the discussion of how a growing Indonesian megacity could look at adopting alternative means of green infrastructure. With this overarching goal, a pre-course and a field course were structured to prepare US students to examine their own city and then interact with their peers in Jakarta. This was designed to test new models for building a sustainable collaborative educational and research experience for both students and faculty. Photojournalism was selected as a research tool that all could use, and specific outcomes were planned that were designed to act as a platform for developing longer term strategies of shared research and teaching.


The relationship that began this experience was initiated by a presidential visit; in November 2010, President Obama returned to Indonesia after having spent four years of his youth in the country. He promised increased linkages between the two countries, one of which was higher education. The United States Department of State partnered with the Institute of International Education to build a program that partnered six Indonesian and six US universities; this formed the USIPP. One of the authors represented his university at that initial meeting in Bandung and has been involved since that time in student visits and conferences. Two of the authors joined him at a conference in Yogyakarta, Indonesia in 2014 that brought faculty leaders from each contributing university to discuss research collaborations around the themes of sustainable environments and resilient communities. The fourth member of the US team was brought in as a research proposal was prepared to link the issues of water infrastructure and housing design by looking at similar and dissimilar situations in both Pittsburgh, PA (USA) and urban centers of Indonesia. The Universitas Indonesia (UI) in Jakarta expressed an initial interest and planning began for a faculty-led student visit to Jakarta, Yogyakarta, and Bali in May 2016. The research proposal sought to examine issues of sustainable infrastructure with a focus on water, housing, and “green” infrastructure; the faculty-led course was the first step toward building an international, collaborative, student-engaged research program.

A Comparison of Urban Water Systems

Developing, or redeveloping, water systems that meet the needs of communities in the face of a changing climate is one of the most important challenges facing the human population today. Depending on local environmental conditions and historical infrastructure, approaches to water system designs can vary widely. Throughout history human settlements have been located in close proximity to water and over 50% of the world’s population lives within 3 km of a freshwater surface feature today (Kummu, De Moel, Ward, & Varis, 2011). In more developed regions, historic town locations are now usually disconnected from their water access except for recreational purposes. In developing regions, those proximities are still in use, but with increased challenges due to greater population and industrialization. The role of water location in both developing and developed regions has an impact in how sustainable land planning practices will be implemented in the future. The conventional linear water infrastructure development model transcends from decentralized collection and waste systems to a single large, centralized, piped and treated system; however, sustainable infrastructure projects around the globe are challenging this model and reevaluating the role of communities in the design, construction, and long-term engagement with these systems.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (USA) is a post-industrial city with a progressive mindset that is embracing new technologies in robotics, medical research, and computer science (Toland, 2013). Against this backdrop of technical innovation, and with a strong approach to sustainability in both its built and natural environment, is a system of aging infrastructure in dire need of repair and replacement. The topological complexity and prevalence of steep slopes in the city provide enormous problems with rainwater management during period of significant rainfall, landslide risk (Pfiel-McCullough, Bain, Bergman, & Crumrine, 2015), and challenges for land management. A combined sewer and storm sewer system in the city overflows during this period with the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers being the recipients. An aging housing stock also compromises the financial ability of the city to renovate residential water overflow. As options for water infrastructure maintenance and development are compared, the role of “green infrastructure” has become an option supported by many due to its expected benefits to improve water quality, reduce flooding, provide a source for outdoor irrigation, recharge aquifers, reduce air pollution, serve as a recreational space, and create wildlife habitat (US EPAa, 2017). While green infrastructure is diverse in its definition globally, the US EPA and the Pittsburgh region thus far have primarily framed the technology as small-scale built systems such as rain barrels, rain gardens, bioswales, permeable pavement, and green roofs (US EPAb, 2017).

Sustainable urban water management (SUWM) is a broader approach that addresses the limitations of conventional centralized water systems; however, sociocultural and institutional aspects of this approach require a deeper understanding. SUWM promotes alternative whole water cycle perspective that emphasizes flexibility, adaptability, and collaborative decision making (Wong and Brown, 2009; Pahl-Wostl, 2009). Marlow, Moglia, Cook, and Beale (2013) reiterated that the centralized water system model does not work well given modern challenges including climate change and population growth, and they critically review the approaches considered SUWM since they often fall short of moving beyond demonstration scale to widespread implementation. In a review of more than 50 studies, Brown and Farrelly (2009) concluded that barriers to implementing SUWM strategies are most often socio-institutional in nature and require building social capital and/or local community capacity. Furthermore, in a solution-oriented review of US city’s approaches to incorporate green infrastructure into urban water redesign, Chini, Canning, Schreiber, Peschel, and Stilwell (2017) surveyed 27 municipalities across the US and made suggestions improving green infrastructure implementation through a policy feedback cycle (PFC) that emphasizes a flexible definition of green infrastructure, an iterative maintenance and evaluation strategy, and a focus on communication to the community. Through our broader research approach and initial observation of student participates, comparisons among urban water system redesign approaches in both US and Indonesian cities can provide valuable insight for improvement.

Like most industrialized cities in the United States, Pittsburgh experienced early population growth and infrastructure development. With the decline of the steel industry the region saw a sharp reduction in population and ability to maintain the built environment. In the 1950s the population approached 680,000, but now just over 300,000 make up the resident pool of the City of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh, defined by the intersection of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, and with its many riverside communities, is facing the need to improve degraded or outdated water infrastructure and policies, similar to many cities in the United States. Clay pipes from homes are crumbling resulting in land subsidence and the leakage of residential waste into surface waters (Divers, Elliot, & Bain, 2013). Combined sewer and stormwater systems overwhelm the wastewater treatment plant during precipitation events and cause an estimated 9 billion gallons to overflow annually (Smeltz and Hopey, 2017).

Across Indonesia, water is plentiful at times and scarce during others. Despite seasons of abundant water, development of infrastructure to store and provide regular access for potable water is unable to keep up with the pace of urban population growth. In Jakarta, only 20% of all households have connections to the municipal water supply, but the informal network of water distribution is much larger (Crane, 1994). Wells are a common water source for many communities, but their prevalent use has led to saltwater intrusion and land subsidence. Floodplain settlements are abundant and increasing due to the proximity to rivers as water access points; however, these communities are at most risk for hazards due to flooding and risk eviction or poor water quality (Vollmer & Gret-Regamey, 2013). Rainwater harvesting as an option for alternative water sourcing in Indonesia is underway in Semarang City, one of Indonesia’s largest cities. Rainwater harvesting projects began with just a handful of demonstration sites, including an elementary school, but the technology is now recognized by the Semarang Environmental Agency and is being used in almost 50 locations (UN, 2015; ACCCRN, 2017).

In both the United States and Indonesia, water infrastructure projects are designed and implemented at multiple scales simultaneously from the individual households to the neighborhood, city, and national extent. It is valuable to be able to evaluate the success or failure of sustainable infrastructure projects in order to inform future infrastructure planning. For example, City Blueprint is a method proposed by van Leeuwen, Frijns, and van Wezel (2012) for comparing urban water management at the scale of a city.

Since the engagement of the individual within any water system is typically through personal use at the household scale, by comparing the water infrastructure in relation to housing design for communities in the United States and Indonesia that differ in socioeconomic and cultural settings, we can better understand needs and barriers to improved water access and sanitation. Both Indonesia and the US have vast ranges in socioeconomic status of residents in waterside neighborhoods. Often, decisions are made at levels that show greater advantage to homeowners with economic and political clout. Land that is not entirely suitable for building is what is inhabited by those who cannot afford better sites for house construction, and are more vulnerable to lack of access to water, flash flooding, or poor water quality.

Jakarta, Indonesia’s largest city, faces the situation of new residents crowding into a city that may not have enough buildable land for them all, especially those with limited financial means. It has to invent new means of infrastructure that meet its current and future needs in a way that is economically realistic. During the rainy season, tremendous amounts of water overflow an infrastructural system in Jakarta that cannot serve the many millions of new residents that the city now contains. The city and country will need to commit to future growth by making these infrastructural investments, but also by experimenting with new models that would not match Pittsburgh’s early twentieth century system. Pittsburgh’s aging infrastructural system is inadequate for its future transformation; social, ecological, and economic systems must be adjusted to integrate new and old housing with more sustainable water management systems. In both regions, issues of gender, race, and income also overlay to add complexity to sustainably managing the water systems. Our main goal was to initiate a comparison among similarities and differences in how Indonesian cities and Pittsburgh are approaching housing and water infrastructure development through a pre-course and preliminary, exploratory research.

Pre-course in Pittsburgh

In all, 13 US students participated on the trip, 10 undergraduate and three graduate students. Most of the students were female; two of the graduate student were male. The two male graduate students were studying sustainability and the female graduate student was a business major. The ten undergraduate students, all female, came from a variety of academic majors, such as interior architecture, biology, photography, graphic design, etc.

In order to prepare students for a faculty-led trip in May 2016, a pre-course was offered. Topics of architecture, culture, history, water resources, and language were presented to the US students through a series of presentations and discussions. Since the students were from a variety of academic majors, they worked to tie their professional and scholastic goals to components of the trip. The pre-course also covered practical aspects of travel including food, proper clothing, and other cultural norms. Lastly, the students were introduced to the use of photography as an observational, reflective, and research tool.

Students were introduced to Photovoice as a qualitative research methodology (Wang, 2005), but the approach was modified in order for students to use photography as an observational and learning tool. In this case, the students were the participants. This approach was chosen by the instructors as the easiest for students of different academic backgrounds to perform, and one that would allow for comparative observation among the neighborhoods they would study in Indonesia. Using the participatory photography approach, the students compared perceptions of housing design and water infrastructure in Pittsburgh and urban centers in Jakarta.

The pre-course included technical training, examples of Photovoice in use, prompt-based observational photographic sessions (i.e., crosstown walks), photographic management, discussion, editing, and writing about images. Students were introduced to photographic techniques such as lighting, composition, focusing, and the value and ethics of editing.

Students were asked to respond to a series of prompts centered around issues of water infrastructure among Pittsburgh neighborhoods. They looked at existing passive systems of green infrastructure and also documented significant problems with the existing, and often deteriorating, water infrastructure of their own neighborhoods. After each prompt, images and captions were shared with the class for critique and discussion. The prompts included:

  • “Water! Add three images on the theme of ‘water’. Include your name, the date and location for the image, and an approximately 50 word caption.”
  • “Transformation. Create six images — three photos of instances where water has transformed the built environment and three photos of instances where the built environment has transformed water.”
  • “Follow the Drop. For this assignment, create a photographic essay with 6-10 images that conveys a portion of the hydrologic cycle through the natural and/or built environments. Include multiple scales (close up, portrait, and landscape) and arrange the images in a series that tells a story. Include a 500-600 word introduction to the series and basic information with each image (photographer, location, date, and abbreviated caption of approx. 10 words). Include your name, the date and location for the image, and an approximately 50 word caption.”

Over time, students improved in both their photographic techniques as well as their ability to keenly observe how designed infrastructure interacted with water. For some assignments, the variation in perspective was large; the “Water!” prompt resulted in themes including droplets on leaves (Figure 1), water guns, ice trays, water fountains, resort pools, beaches, baths, and rivers (Figure 2). “Follow the Drop” responses included flow paths as short as an ice cube melting, a laundry cycle, and a path through a small waterfall-pond system to larger paths from clouds to rain to puddles then to rivers. Overall, the prompts primed and prepared the students for the study abroad experience.

Figure 1. A US student’s photographic response to the “Water!” prompt.

Figure 1. A US student’s photographic response to the “Water!” prompt.

Figure 2. The Allegheny River near Pittsburgh, PA, one of two rivers that defines the city, enables water-based transportation of goods, and provides drinking water for most of the city’s residents. Photo taken by a Chatham University student.

Figure 2. The Allegheny River near Pittsburgh, PA, one of two rivers that defines the city, enables water-based transportation of goods, and provides drinking water for most of the city’s residents. Photo taken by a Chatham University student.

Study Abroad Experience

During May of 2016, US faculty and students traveled through Central Java, Indonesia, visiting two neighborhoods Jakarta, Kalibata and Kemayoran, Kampung Kali Code in Yogyakarta, and Bali. Professor Atmodiwirjo from the architectural program at UI met our group when we arrived. After introductions and a campus tour, Professor Galford and Professor Biss provided a digital presentation on their current research followed by the student pre-course responses from research prompts conducted in Pittsburgh to the Indonesian students and faculty. In past community engagement projects, UI faculty and students have focused on sustainable design solutions to issues of water sanitation and mitigation during the rainy season in Jakarta’s neighborhoods. This led to UI students offering to guide our group through the neighborhoods, or kampungs, of Kalibata and Kemayoran.

Kampung Kalibata is located in South Jakarta. The neighbourhood is quite dense with houses situated closely next to one another. Most houses are occupied by more than four people. Despite the limitation on the quality of the living space, the residents have very strong social ties. Kampung Kalibata is situated on the low land and thus has poor drainage quality. Prior to 2014, this kampung was always flooded during rainy season. Water could reach up to 1.5 meters and takes a long time to subside. A project from UI took place in this kampung to respond to the issue of flooding. Staff and students from UI worked together with the local residents to create biopores and an infiltration well and also together cleaned the gutters around the houses (Figure 3). These attempts had successfully reduced the time needed for the flooded water to subside.

Figure 3. Green infrastructure and conveyance system in Kampung Kalibata. Photo by US student.

Figure 3. Green infrastructure and conveyance system in Kampung Kalibata. Photo by US student.

Figure 4. US student observation of water infrastructure in Kampung Kalibata during study abroad field trip to Jakarta, Indonesia.

Figure 4. US student observation of water infrastructure in Kampung Kalibata during study abroad field trip to Jakarta, Indonesia.

Kemayoran, also called Apron Kemayoran, is a vertical housing community located in Central Jakarta. The housing consists of more than 20 towers. Each of the tower consist of four to five stories, with a narrow staircase in the middle. The housing units have the area of 21 or 36 m2 (226 or 387 ft2) and each unit is equipped with its own kitchen and bathroom. The units are usually inhabited by a family comprising of four to six people. In most towers, there are common areas on the ground floor, which could be used by the residents for social activities, such as community events. This space also becomes the spaces for children’s play, since they do not have enough play space in their units and limited common space in higher levels. There are also spaces for commercial activities such as food stalls and convenience shops selling everyday household items.

CU students collaborated with UI students to examine and document previous design solutions and attempts at water management and how issues of housing design and community planning intersected with issues of water infrastructure in these two kampungs. Following the site visits, the students worked in groups to discuss both structured and unstructured observations and developed presentations on their findings. After four days in Jakarta, the CU group travelled to Yogyakarta to continue research and data collection in the well-known riverfront Kampung Kali Code housing development.

Figure 5. Kampung Kemayoran’s exposed water infrastructure. Photo by UI student.

Figure 5. Kampung Kemayoran’s exposed water infrastructure. Photo by UI student.

Figure 6. Kemayoran community members gather around common water facilities to complete daily work. Photo by US student.

Figure 6. Kemayoran community members gather around common water facilities to complete daily work. Photo by US student.

Kampung Kali Code is a popular neighborhood among academics to research and it was the recipient of the Aga Khan award for architecture in 1982. Kampung Kali Code is unique as compared to Kalibata and Kemayoran in its planning and juxtaposition along the steep banks of the Kali Code (Code River). The students were immersed in the self-sustaining, low income neighborhood and were able to begin to recognize common strategies observed in the previous neighborhoods as well as new sustainable strategies exclusive to the site conditions of Kali Code. This tour was led by a faculty member of the Indonesian Institute of the Arts, which is one of the prominent universities focusing on visual and performing arts in the region.

Figure 7. Kampung Kali Code in Yogyakarta, Central Java. Photo by CU faculty member Gregory Galford.

Figure 7. Kampung Kali Code in Yogyakarta, Central Java. Photo by CU faculty member Gregory Galford.

Bali was the third leg of the trip. There was no formal interaction with university partners on in Bali, although we have worked with the architectural faculty at Udayana University in the past. However, the students toured examples of a Balinese compound house, batik production, Hindu temples, rice fields, coffee, and other craft making.

Upon arriving back in Pittsburgh, US students were required to submit their top five photographs from each of the studied neighborhoods along with a reflective narrative about the trip. UI students also shared photographs from the neighborhoods toured. The CU and UI student photos and reflections will be exhibited in a CU gallery in February 2017.

Student Reflections

US students were asked to complete a final reflection after their study abroad experiment. Their final reflections were coded with the a priori themes of: cultural differences/similarities, people/locals, water, housing design/architecture/infrastructure, and beauty/color. Additional emergent themes arose including: kindness, religion, happiness/smiles/cheerful, simplicity, multicultural, and friendships. The students embarked on their trip with the goal of cognitively comparing the differences and similarities of housing design and water infrastructure using visual methods, and while their written responses reflect this, they also support strong affective transformations in relation to their experiences of cultural similarities and differences, specifically around observations of religious affiliation and a widespread kindness (Figure 8).

The students’ responses conveyed the overall water system organization, but also the exposed, visible, vulnerable, and often contaminated nature of the waters systems encountered. Some of the responses reflected familiarity with the features observed, while other statements illustrated realizations of differences. In reference to Kalibata, one student commented, “I immediately noticed that some of the houses and buildings were built up to be protected against the flood water.” Another observed, “Even though their water system was exposed to outside elements, it was a structured water system that had a well and pump for drinking water.” Another student experienced an new awareness of water system diversity:

The water infrastructure in the community of Kalibata, being that it was the first of the communities that we encountered during our time in Indonesia, was initially quite jarring to me in that it was so distinctly foreign to any system of water or waste removal which I had encountered in the past. Previously I had just assumed that underground pipes were the standard, and had not considered that other countries might have other systems in place. [sic]

In Kampung Kemayoran, the vertical housing community, students observed the exposed utilities along the outside of the buildings (Figure 5), but they also commented on the broader aspects of the system and challenges faced by the community. One student remarked that:

… [having] the opportunity to actually step inside the apartments in Kemayoran led to further insights into the use of water there, specifically in regards to the large sealed jugs of clean water in all of them, which also served as a constant reminder that, though they had running water, it still was not of an ingestible quality.

Some students reflected on the environmental and social context of the housing and water systems they were observing. They expressed that “no one-size-fits-all solution to infrastructure or urban planning and each solution should local factors that are unique to one place in the world.”

In addition to the insights regarding similarities and differences in housing and water systems, the students were strongly transformed by their engagements with Indonesians they met throughout their travels. While some of the students had previous travel experience and others were flying for the first time, themes that arose from most of their reflections centered on simple living, kindness, happiness, religious plurality, and an open welcome from everyone they encountered (Figure 8). The students learned subtleties of cultural practices such as handshaking customs. A student explained that in Indonesian culture “… as a sign of respect, when you shake hands the person who is younger will rotate their hand to the bottom which puts the older individuals hand on top.”

Several students remarked on the simplicity of life in Indonesia. A student reflected that they were

… inspired by the utter resilience of the people of Indonesia. They maximize their output with little to no resources. They live the simple life. One thing observed as we went from village to village is the fact that the children do not have a plethora of toys like the children in America. Another indication of the simple lifestyle that the average Indonesian upholds.

Another student’s interpreted the Indonesian lifestyle by saying that she

…was imagining a people who were so essentially different from us that being around them would forever change me. But they weren’t. The people we met were just people, not so different from any of us. Instead of these glaring cultural differences, the things that stuck out to me during our trip were the minor differences in our ways of life. Indonesian people’s lack of preoccupation with material goods and ownership, the overwhelming sense of community values everywhere we went, and the willingness to help strangers.

Finally, the US students learned about and were moved by the religious pluralism in Indonesia and the kindness they experienced as visitors. “One of the themes common to each tour guide was the ability of the Indonesian people to live in harmony despite being from 350 different ethnic groups and practicing many different religions,” a student recalled. Similarly, another student “appreciated … the lesson in kindness, tolerance, and acceptance that could be seen from the way that the members of different religions interact [and the] way… strangers are welcomed [into] their country and their home.” As one of the US students described, they “… learned that our differences do not define us and we are much more similar than we think. And most importantly [they] learned that kindness is a language that everyone in the world can understand and appreciate.”

Figure 8. Students overwhelmingly conveyed the kindness and happiness they received from their Indonesian hosts.

Figure 8. Students overwhelmingly conveyed the kindness and happiness they received from their Indonesian hosts.


This experience reinforced the role that photography can play as an instructional method to encourage focused and keen observation but also reflection and visual communication skill development, but also as a research tool particularly for place-based and study abroad courses. For international educational experiences where cultural competence is a direct learning goal, we anticipate that by refining the use of photographic methods, both learning and assessment can be improved. For example, Amerson and Livingston (2014) implemented reflexive photographic approach to assess nursing student’s experience in international service learning context. Interviews with the students and 100 images per student were examined for experiential themes. Perry et al. (2012) provides suggestions for how and why we should examine more closely the value of short-term study abroad experiences. As other studies and the observations above show, with sufficient pre-trip preparation and valuable environmental and cultural engagements, a field experience such as this can be eye opening and career changing for students.

As this project continues and grows, it will be valuable to increase the US and Indonesian student interactions; the peer-to-peer work is an important medium for exchanging ideas and perceptions on the observed environment. The dialog between students from different backgrounds reflect their familiarity and unfamiliarity with the settings, but this difference also enriched the way they understood the issues of water in the context of Indonesia’s cities as well as their perceptions and interpretations of cultural similarities and differences.


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