Caring for Country should be a sustainability and green design priority

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There must be meaningful engagement between Indigenous knowledge holders and the rest of Australia if we want to care for Country and communities, say Indigenous knowledge holders.

Panel members: Angie Abdilla, Old Ways, New, Dr Virginia Marshall, Australian National University, and Clarence Slockee, Yerrabingin. Moderated by Tina Perinotto


Those involved in Australia’s built environment sector are asking the wrong questions about development and failing to involve Indigenous Australians in the design process from the outset, according to Indigenous knowledge experts who spoke at the Tomorrowland 2019 conference in Sydney.

Dr Virginia Marshall, Australian National University

There is a boom in interest about Indigenous knowledge, says Dr Virginia Marshall, Inaugural Indigenous Postdoctoral Fellow at the Australian National University. 

However, many practitioners want Indigenous information about design and caring for Country for free and don’t hire Indigenous Australians, which does nothing to help build capacity for Indigenous people or respect for the knowledge they have held and protected for millennia, she says.

“If we don’t work together, we won’t achieve.”

Marshall was speaking on the opening panel at Tomorrowland 2019 with Clarence Slockee from Indigenous startup, Yerrabingin, and Angie Abdilla from consultancy Old Ways, New. 

“If we don’t work together, we won’t achieve,” Marshall said, whose award winning book, Overturning aqua nullius: Securing Aboriginal water rights, aims to cultivate an understanding of Aboriginal water concepts and water policy development in Australia.

For example, Marshall says Australia must start thinking seriously about water in the planning process – everything from the extraction of water from rivers to bottled water – and adopt nature-based solutions in the planning process. 

Clarence Slockee, Yerrabingin

She says Indigenous communities have been managing our waterways for thousands of years and they need to have a seat at the table when drawing up water management plans.

“We are starting to fall on our knees in this country … You really need to think about a different way of talking about the environment,” she says.

“We [Indigenous Australians and knowledge holders] don’t fit into a box, which is really challenging for the people we work with.”

“If we don’t have water we will be on our knees entirely … we can’t do anything in planning unless we have water.”

Her comments are supported by Slockee, an expert in urban greening, who says it has taken a long time for Indigenous approaches to the environment and other issues to be taken seriously by non-Indigenous Australians.

When Slockee and his partner Christian Hampson set up Yerrabingin in 2018, they realised that although Indigenous Australians were the “most consulted race on the planet”, Indigenous ideas weren’t actually having much influence on planning and design. 

“We need to be in the design process at the beginning,” says Slockee. “Consultancy is not engagement; consulting always comes at the end.”

Angie Abdilla, Old Ways, New

He says another problem is that the design and management of green spaces often comes down to the bottom line, so decisions about, for example, what species of trees to plant, come down to cost rather than whether the trees are native or introduced.

Abdilla, whose consultancy promotes country-centred design, says the sustainability sector has become too specialised and needs to be brought back to its grass roots. 

She says “box-ticking exercises” where project managers say they have consulted Indigenous people need to stop. There is often enthusiasm for Indigenous knowledge at the beginning of a project but as it progresses that enthusiasm falls away.

Sydney is actually a wetland “no matter how much concrete you pour over it”.

“We [Indigenous Australians and knowledge holders] don’t fit into a box, which is really challenging for the people we work with,” she says, adding that her company refuses to work with people who won’t put the needs of Country first. 

Indigenous knowledge should inform placemaking, service design and the associated technology around it because “if you look after Country first then communities are looked after in the process.

“If you care for Country, it will care for you.”

She says the wrong questions are being asked about Western Sydney. Instead of asking how to house tens of thousands more people in Western Sydney, in light of rising temperatures and land depletion, we should be asking if more people should be living there.

Sydney is actually a wetland “no matter how much concrete you pour over it” and all built environment infrastructure and water management plans should work with this natural ecology, not against it.

So, how do we make the BE and sustainability sectors realise the sophistication of Indigenous knowledge and its value in today’s world?

Marshall says its tightly connected to “truth telling”, such as recognising the massacres over many years of Indigenous people by white land owners. Research by the likes of Indigenous Australian writer and researcher, Bruce Pascoe, whose book Dark Emu challenges the narrative of the Aboriginal people as nomadic hunters, has been around for some time but people haven’t taken notice of it.

“We can’t have reconciliation unless we tell the truth.”

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