The time is now for Indigenous design equity


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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have always been the architects, the engineers and the land managers – that deep wisdom must be reflected in tackling climate change

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.

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.

We need the valuable contributions and significant frame of reference and deep wisdom that first nations people can bring.

The knowledge systems of Indigenous peoples

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 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.

There is indeed an opportunity to foreground one the seventeen United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals ( 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 B. Lee Jr. well puts it.

Culturally responsive design practices

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 in the summer of 2020, 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.

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.

By Jefa Greenaway, University of Melbourne

First published on 22 October 2021.

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