The future of our cities is Indigenous


4 Minute read

Australia’s unceded cities are still part of Country, and if we care for them, they will care for us as we face the climate challenge.

Our cities are located on unceded Aboriginal lands. Yet cities can feel openly hostile to Indigenous peoples. They don’t reflect our cultural values or sense of place.

They ignore Country, bulldozing or building up the terrain in order to serve a colonial concept of what a city should be, rather than working in partnership with what Country provides.

Indigenous peoples across the globe have a deeply reciprocal relationship with their lands and waters. In Australia, we as sovereign Indigenous peoples, often conceptualise our homelands as Country. Country encapsulates more than land and waters, it holds our social values, resources, stories, cultural obligations and knowledges.

We speak to Country as we would a family member, we worry about Country and long for it when we leave. Country is an active participant in conversation and in decision making.

We believe that as we love Country, Country loves us. And as we care for Country, Country cares for us.

Adaptable Indigenous knowledge

Melbourne is located alongside the Birrarung, a river that has nourished countless generations before us. Today, the scales are off balance, the river is choked with pollutants and as we don’t care for the Birrarung, it is unable to care for us.

Wurundjeri Elders see it as their cultural duty to return the river to health and invite all people to walk with them so that one day the river will be healed to provide nourishment for the many generations that come after.

We protect the earth and feel more keenly the impacts of climate change.

Our young people are fighting for their future and the health of Country. Globally, Indigenous peoples continue to resist further destruction of our homelands, and through this resistance have delayed or stopped enormous amounts of emissions.

The recent report from Indigenous Environmental Network shows that Indigenous campaigns are resisting projects that equal at least a quarter of US and Canadian greenhouse gas pollution.

Indigenous knowledge has always been adaptable.

In the south-east of Australia, we’ve held on to stories that are over 30,000 years old and tell of changing environments. We hold memories of sea level rises and changes in the availability of fresh water. Our knowledges help us adapt and innovate, while holding on to principals of reciprocity and planning for future generations.

As our cities face increasing pressure from climate change we must learn to be adaptive. In her closing remarks of the Innovate4Cities final plenary Under Secretary General and Executive Director, UN-Habitat, Maimunah Mohd Sharif, recognised the power of learning from the past to inform the future of our cities.

Cities are made up of millions of humans and non-human connections and relationships that are connected to the millennia of Indigenous place making that comes before.

Indigenous knowledge can influence and shape healthy city Country.

But this needs to be underpinned by a relationally guided framework that understands the connectedness of humans and Country, and is strengthened through respect, accountability, and principals of informed consent.

Cities are on country

I have often heard from respected Elders and knowledge holders that when we get things right for our peoples – then we get it right for everyone. The link between healthy people and healthy Country in ingrained in our cultural practices.

The reinvigoration of cultural practice across Australia shows that we can bring nourishment back to Country. That we are able to reconnect with practices that have been suppressed by colonial violence and that Country responds to these practices – because as we long for Country, Country has been longing for us.

It has been waiting for us.

Cities are located on Country, and so become part of Country.

If we acknowledge cities as Country, then our cities must have a voice in the conversation on climate resilient futures. Cities must be cared for and loved, and they need to be given the opportunity to love and care for us in return.

As we head toward 1.5 °C, we must listen when we are welcomed to Country – to not harm the land and the waterways, and respect Country and each other. The obligation to care for Country falls to all who use its resources.

By Maddi Miller, University of Melbourne

This is article adapted from a presentation made by the author during the Innovate4Cities conference.

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First published on 25 October 2021.

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