The time is now for Indigenous design equity

Wednesday, Sep 30, 2020, 01:02 AM | Source: Pursuit

By Jefa Greenaway

The time is now for Indigenous design equity

As esteemed Wurundjeri elder, Aunty Di Kerr OAM states, "if you care for Country it will in turn care for you".

This simple yet powerful evocation of Caring for Country principles reinforces the important role that Indigenous people have always played as custodians of our vast island continent for millennia.

Bolon Bolon billabong, a Wurundjeri managed landscape in close proximity to Melbourne. Picture: Supplied

As Australia's first ecologists, Indigenous people have continually groomed the landscape, for human occupation for at least 67,000 years.

The approach has been a holistic one, which has sought to maintain balance in sustainable ways, never taking more than is required, but rather privileging the intuitive and ethical understanding that everything is interconnected and cannot be segmented to meet alternative agendas.

The unprecedented global experience of COVID-19 is a temporary wave compared to the tsunami of climate change impacts, ecological degradation and the huge extent of biodiversity loss that the planet is facing.

The Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning and the Connected Cities Lab is currently hosting an important and prescient conversation centred on the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Hans P Bokelund, Director Aboriginal Melbourne at the City of Melbourne and proud Darumbal/Turrbal man will kick-off the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Climate Change and Cities Symposium through a uniquely Indigenous perspective.

Significantly, it will invariably reiterate the valuable contributions and significant frame of reference and deep wisdom that First Nations people can bring.

Seasonal calendar of the Kulin Nation, which celebrates Indigenous knowledge systems. Picture: Graphic interpretation and design by Greenaway Architects


Interestingly, it is a little-known fact that while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples constitute approximately three per cent of our population, approximately 70 per cent of Indigenous people in Australia are urbanised – living in our major metropolises, key towns and regional centres.

Further, Indigenous people, being approximately five per cent of the global population, protect approximately 80 per cent of the world's biodiversity across approximately 50 per cent of the world's land mass.

This, despite legally owning less than 10 per cent of this land and constituting 15 per cent of the world's poor.

The disparity and disproportionate responsibility and sense of obligation, without the requisite resources and political support is telling, evidenced by the University's recently launched Indigenous Knowledge Institute.

However, we have much to learn from the deeply embedded knowledge systems of Indigenous peoples, both here in Australia and beyond.

Yet there are a number of aspects that need to be addressed before we can advance our collective actions towards a new collaborative model which embraces Indigenous voices and agency.

As the Black Lives Matter movement has further illustrated, there is urgent need for a historical reckoning on the impacts of history in subjugating Indigenous voices, in disrupting connections to Country and the colonial complicity in creating unsustainable economic practices which have and continue to exploit our resources, our land and our people.

The value of Indigenous peoples' role in sharing Indigenous knowledge systems cannot be understated. Picture: Getty Images

There is indeed an opportunity to foreground one the seventeen SDGs, namely SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities by aligning to the philosophical and key principle to ensure 'no one is left behind' and as Hans is acutely aware "furthest behind first".

This moral measurement presupposes a need to embed inclusivity, to prioritise equity and address consideration around free, prior and informed consent, consistent with 2007's UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In other words, and through a built-environment practitioner's lens, this could be described as "design justice" as African-American architect, Bryan C. Lee Jr. well puts it.


The acknowledgement of the cultural underpinnings to society cannot be understated, particularly in the value of Indigenous peoples' role in sharing Indigenous knowledge systems – where the cultural imprimatur is obtained and permissions are given.

On the back of devastating bushfires across Australia this past summer, there has been a move to further embrace Indigenous knowledge.

This is well illustrated by the capacity of cultural burning techniques in providing an additional tool in adaptive fire management practices, which is being embraced by municipal Councils and governmental instrumentalities, while also being researched to demonstrate its efficacy and sound scientific groundings.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Climate Change and Cities Symposium has a uniquely Indigenous perspective. Picture: Getty Images

In addition, the vast fish kills along the Darling River in recent years has amplified the need for clear management of cultural flows along our primary water courses, which embed traditional and sustainable Indigenous practices.

In short, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have always been the architects, the engineers, the land managers and continue to be so, reinforced by the emerging cohort of creative practitioners who are contributing to the solutions in meeting the wicked problems before us.

The United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals are an important impetus to building relationality with Indigenous knowledge keepers, to explore culturally responsive design practices and to embed self-determination for Indigenous peoples.

This approach should become core business for truly sustainable development, ensuring that all peoples share and prosper in the social compact to build opportunities within our cities, which increasingly will become the place for two thirds of world's population over the coming decades.

Importantly, it's a wake-up call for society to build cultural intelligence, to ensure reciprocity and to value the deep wisdom that 3,000 generations of knowledge holds.

The time is now to incorporate a fourth pillar of accountability that embraces not only the social, environmental and economic dimensions – but to infuse cultural sensibilities as a normative and inclusive practice, and to support the transformative change that never leaves Indigenous people behind.

The Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning and the Connected Cities Lab virtual Sustainable Development Goals, Climate Change and Cities Symposium runs from Wednesday 30 September 2020 to Friday 2 October 2020, with the aim of showcasing the role cities and their urban partners are playing in implementing the SDGs. For more information, please email:

Banner: Getty Images