For many young Australians, a trip to Indonesia suggests beaches, Bintangs and perhaps a brush with the notorious ‘Bali belly’. Mayeesha Shafiq’s recent trip to Jakarta with UNSW was nothing like this: instead, the third-year Landscape Architecture student describes it as “an experience that has definitely been a major milestone of my life – an experience I will never forget”.

Along with fellow Landscape Architecture student Stuart Harris, Mayeesha spent two weeks in Indonesia attending the APRU SCL Field School, an intensive educational program hosted by the University of Hong Kong.

Following a week and a half of applied learning across Indonesia, the students were invited to participate in the Sustainable Cities and Landscapes Conference in Hong Kong.

“The Sustainable Cities and Landscapes conference has definitely been one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life,” Mayeesha says.

“As a student, it opened my eyes to a plethora of perspectives on how to see the world as a built environment practitioner. It has inspired me to delve deep into the situations and access them with utmost compassion and care for not just the average public but all walks of life.”

City Farm, Hong Kong is a small-scale urban farm which is a sustainable, localised approach to food production. Photo: Mayeesha Shafiq.

The conference brought together academics from 45 universities and 17 countries in an international conversation on how the issue of sustainability could be addressed within the field of landscape architecture.  

Stuart says these discussions one of the most inspiring aspects of the trip.

I was fortunate to sit in on a group comprising lecturers and professors from the United States, Japan, China and Hong Kong. They were producing a paper on urban renewable energies and, in particular, they were interested in the ‘pathways’ taken by societies to achieve a low carbon emitting environment,” he explains.

Before participants of the field week came together for the conference, they had the chance to travel to many culturally and environmentally significant sites.

A highlight for both Stuart and Mayeesha was hiking into the crater of Mt Ijen, an active volcano in East Java. It is one of the only places in the world where the phenomenon of ‘blue fire’ can be witnessed – dangerous spurts of sulphuric gas emerge from the rock as blue flames.

View east away from the crater at Mt Ijen. Photo: Stuart Harris.

Visiting natural wonders such as Mt Ijen provided more than just a taste of extreme eco-tourism for the students, however. Field expeditions were also used to illustrate some of the growing challenges posed by tourism and pollution in the region.

Following their visit to the volcano, students were briefed on some of the challenges the site faced by representatives from the East Java Office of Natural Resources and Ecosystem Conservation Office (BKSDA). The BKSDA is responsible for the maintenance of all 20 conservation areas in the East Java region.

Visitor numbers have increased tenfold over the past seven years to exceed 7,000 a day in peak season and this is taking an evident toll on the landscape.

While the BKSDA was keen to show the improvements that they had made to the path, the rest-stops and the barriers at the top, it was obvious they had thought less about the impact of the large growth in visitor numbers and the sustainability of the program,” Stuart says.

Mayeesha also reflected on some of the other less tangible impacts to the site.

When mass tourism takes over, the natural essence of the landscape is lost to the swarm of people trying to experience it,” she says.  

“Since mass tourism attracts many visitors to an area, pollution and waste management can become an issue.”

Mayeesha and Stuart also attended a range of Indonesian cultural experiences, such as the night-time release of baby turtles into the sea and a performance of a traditional Balinese Opera.

Stuart says his growing awareness of the built environment even shaped his experience of the ancient temple where the opera was performed.

“I was struck by how the landscape architecture complemented the temple structure,” he says.

“Planning for the growth of the trees that perfectly framed the shape of the temple served to reinforce the concept that landscape architecture is design that evolves – it is really constructed for future generations to enjoy.”

A local temple in Bali. Photo: Stuart Harris. 

Mayeesha also left Indonesia with a greater appreciation for the importance of the built environment and how it both shapes and is shaped by those living within it.

“The purpose of our work is to create better environments and, to do that, we need to have empathy – we need to actually feel and understand the needs and issues,” she says.

“By being in a place and having the chance to experience that place gives us a better understanding. Being a part of the design field trip took me out of my comfort zone and invoked an awareness and curiosity in me.”

Both students thoroughly enjoyed the trip and encourage students to make the most of opportunities to explore their industry in an international context while at university.

Stuart and Mayeesha were asked to produce a blog about their experiences in Indonesia. Read Stuart’s full report of his trip here and Mayeesha’s here

The Bachelor of Landscape Architecture (Honours) teaches students to design and protect inspiring and resilient landscapes. Find out more about the degree here