An incredibly valuable, yet significantly untapped, pool of knowledge - Indigenous thinking and connection with Country - is beginning to be given voice in placemaking, design and environmental impact assessment in Australia.
Importantly, the Independent Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) found that "[r]eform is needed to ensure that Indigenous Australians are listened to and decision-makers respectfully harness the enormous value of Indigenous knowledge of managing Country".
We see this as part of a broader trend towards embracing Indigenous thinking and strengthening cultural heritage protection that is gaining momentum, in line with the current focus on sustainability, the urgency around taking action on climate change, the prominence being given to the ESG performance of corporations and the move towards Constitutional recognition of an indigenous Voice.
For the first time, the latest contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report featured Indigenous knowledge alongside Western scientific research. However, the Australasian chapter has been criticised for failing to include Indigenous lead authors, revealing there is still much progress to be made in truly embracing a caring for Country approach.
Specifically, in NSW in the last 12 months, connecting with Country and caring for Country have been:
- identified in the former NSW Minister's Planning Principles as
being essential to the realisation of sustainable development goals
in NSW - albeit, these Principles were recently revoked by the
current Minister for Planning, Anthony Roberts; and
- incorporated as one of nine objectives of the proposed new Design and Place State Environmental Planning Policy (Design and Place SEPP).
These developments draw on the wealth of guidance material produced in recent years by the Government Architect NSW (GANSW), including the draft 'Connecting with Country' framework (Framework)and the 'Designing with Country' Discussion Paper.
What is 'Country'?
Australian Indigenous perceptions of land, water, biodiversity and indeed the universe are inherently ecocentric - nature-centred, rather than human-centred. This way of perceiving our universe is that humans are but part of an environmental community, and that land and nature are not seen as a resource or commodity to be manipulated to human-centric purposes.
The concepts of Country and caring for it are easy to understand in the context of open space and landscape, but perhaps more difficult to perceive in urban settings and built form. This requires an understanding of what is Country.
In response to that question, the Framework cites the work of Dr Daniele Hromek:
"'Country' (capital C) has a specific and significant meaning for Aboriginal peoples. In the Aboriginal sense of the word, Country relates to the nation or cultural group and land that we belong to, yearn for, find healing from and will return to. However, Country means much more than land, it is our place of origin in cultural, spiritual and literal terms. It includes not only land but also skies and waters. Country incorporates both the tangible and the intangible, for instance, all the knowledges and cultural practices associated with land. People are part of Country and our identity is derived in a large way in relation to Country."
How is caring for Country being incorporated
The Minister's Planning Principles
The Minister's Planning Principles: A Plan for Sustainable Development in NSW (Planning Principles)were released by the former Minister for Planning, Rob Stokes MP, in December 2021. The Planning Principles were intended to guide strategic and land use planning decisions and inform the development of all planning policies in NSW.
Building on the objects of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979, achieving sustainable development was the central ambition of the Planning Principles.
The Planning Principles recognised that connecting with Country, along with addressing climate change, is essential to realising sustainable development and its positive social, environmental and economic benefits in NSW. The former Minister therefore emphasised that connecting with Country should be a central consideration when applying all Planning Principles.
On 14 March 2022, the recently appointed Minister for Planning Anthony Roberts announced that he had made the decision to revoke the former Minister's Direction giving effect to the Planning Principles, choosing instead to prioritise housing supply in line with a clear directive given by Premier Perrottet.
Despite this, the inclusion of caring for Country as a central pillar of the Planning Principles reveals that it is moving to the forefront of government decision-making around sustainable development goals.
NSW Draft Design and Place SEPP
The public exhibition period for the Design and Place SEPP ended on 28 February 2022. This draft SEPP proposes a number of reforms to the way design and placemaking is approached in NSW. One of its aims is "to recognise the importance of Country to Aboriginal people and to incorporate local Aboriginal knowledge, culture and tradition into development".
Among other things, the draft SEPP introduces five new 'design principles' which are to be taken into account by planning authorities, including by local councils when making Local Environmental Plans, and by consent authorities determining development consents.
Under proposed section 13, development consent must not be granted for development to which the SEPP applies unless the consent authority is satisfied that the development is consistent with the design principles. Sections 14-23 then set out the requirements for a consent authority in relation to each design consideration.
The second of two references to Country appears in section 16, which provides that the consent authority must consider whether, if the development is State significant development to which the Urban Design Guide applies, the development incorporates a response to Country and takes into account submissions made to the applicant by Aboriginal stakeholders.
The draft Urban Design Guide (Guide) was exhibited alongside the Design and Place SEPP and is intended to apply to urban design development under the Design and Place SEPP. It emphasises place-based planning which draws strong parallels to a connecting with Country approach. Indeed, the Guide highlights the importance of learning from Aboriginal people and their connection with Country to enrich the design process. Walking Country and engaging Traditional Custodians are identified as actions which can be taken in the design preparation phase to integrate local indigenous knowledge into the overall approach.
Connecting with Country Framework
The Connecting with Country Framework, prepared by Indigenous members of the NSW public service, Indigenous communities and the NSW Government Architect, is intended to inform planning, design and delivery of built environment projects in NSW.
It was released in December 2020, to be trialled over a 12-month period on several pilot projects.
Underpinning the Framework is the recognition that the Indigenous way of thinking, which takes a much less human-centred approach, is much more amenable to achieving a sustainable future.
The ambition of the Framework is that everyone involved in planning, designing and delivering built environment projects in NSW will commit to helping support the health and wellbeing of Country by valuing, respecting and being guided by Aboriginal people.
The Framework contains two key strategies:
- Pathways for connecting; and
- Considering project life cycles with an Aboriginal perspective.
The first strategy emphasises that cultural awareness must come first. Only once Aboriginal values, and their way of thinking, operating and passing down knowledge is understood, can project life cycles be planned and developed with an Aboriginal perspective.
An indigenous Voice
Following the findings of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition, the recently released Indigenous Voice Co-design Process Final Report to the Australian Government proposes a framework for the establishment of a National Voice and Local and Regional Voices for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to contribute towards the development of policies, programs and services at all levels of government.
Although there is much work to be done in terms of what this framework might look like and how it will work in practice, it is likely this will complement the caring for Country approach as it is targeted towards involvement of indigenous Australians in the development of law and policy, which may include planning laws at the local and regional levels.
What do the changes mean?
Pending the making of the Design and Place SEPP, there are no statutory requirements to take a caring for Country approach to planning and design in NSW. Whilst caring for Country was a key pillar of the former Minister's Planning Principles, these were recently discontinued, primarily because of their perceived adverse impact on housing supply.
Change will come if and when the Design and Place SEPP is made as, for the first time, development proponents of State significant projects will be required to demonstrate a response to Country and take into account submissions made by Aboriginal stakeholders.
The draft Design and Place SEPP does not define what is meant by Country. Although this may be troubling for development proponents, it is no doubt deliberate.
As we have indicated, Country is an amorphous concept that is about cultural connections to place. It is about local knowledge, language, stories and practices.
Caring for Country can be manifested within urban design and planning in a multitude of ways, such as via Indigenous participation in planning processes and governance, physical structures or artworks, naming of urban spaces, and the encouragement and incorporation of traditional practices and knowledge in urban design.
Under the Framework, cultural awareness is an essential first step in a caring for Country approach. Gaining cultural awareness necessarily involves the identification of relevant individuals and groups with connections to Country in the earliest stages of a project.
The individuals and groups who constitute 'Aboriginal stakeholders' for the purpose of section 16 of the Design and Place SEPP are not defined, which we again believe is deliberate, as the holders of relevant local knowledge, language and cultural practices will differ from place to place.
Whilst the draft Design and Place SEPP does not provide much guidance around what caring for Country means or how it is to be applied in practice, further context and practical guidance can be gleaned from the GANSW's Framework.
NSW is not alone
Guidance may also be gleaned from overseas systems and examples. It is perhaps unsurprising that NSW is not the first jurisdiction to adopt a caring for Country approach in urban planning.
Nations such as New Zealand and Canada, have each applied the caring for Country philosophy in the planning context. For example, Auckland Council, New Zealand, has created an independent Pacific Peoples Advisory Panel to identify issues that are important to people from Pacific cultures and to provide advice on regional strategies, policies and plans. In association with the Panel, Auckland Council has also developed the Te Aranga Principles to provide practical guidance on embedding Maori cultural values in the urban context.
In Canada, the City of Edmonton established the Edmonton Urban Aboriginal Affairs Committee to bring Indigenous perspectives to city projects. While the mandate of the Committee is broad and extends beyond the urban context, its responsibilities include to investigate, develop solutions and make recommendations on areas of concern to urban Indigenous people.
The Committee is also actively involved in the development and implementation of policies, programmes, services and initiatives which impact Indigenous people living in Edmonton.
Where to from here?
As the focus on sustainability in urban design grows, so too will the emphasis on Indigenous knowledge and caring for Country. Aboriginal Australians have the experience in understanding that 'if we care for Country, it will care for us'. However, designing with Country in mind will not be an overnight change.
Embracing Indigenous knowledge will require a whole of project-cycle perspective, a change of focus to a more ecocentric approach to development and move away from the 'check a box' approach to consultation. This will be a significant shift from current practice in NSW and many other Australian jurisdictions and will require more lead time than projects generally currently allow.
However, as government-led emphasis on caring for Country gains momentum, planning authorities and development proponents - particularly of larger-scale projects - would do well to start thinking about how they will imbue these principles in their projects.
In terms of practical examples and guidance, planning authorities and development proponents would benefit from familiarising themselves with the Framework and overseas developments, as well as with the outcomes and learnings of the Framework's pilot projects, as and when they are reported.
We also see an increasing role for Indigenous community and stakeholder consultation specialist consultancies, to assist project proponents in identifying and making connections with relevant knowledge-holders at the pre-conception phase of a project.
Most of all, we anticipate that companies' ESG frameworks will soon demand adoption of a caring for Country principle across all the entities' activities and touchpoints. An entity's record of quality engagement with indigenous stakeholders will undoubtedly become an ESG performance indicator.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.
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