Urban Beat Issue 4 - July 2017 - NAIDOC Week edition

Selected stories from the fourth issue of Urban Beat, the newsletter of the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub, can be read online below. A pdf copy of the full issue can be downloaded here.


Jason Barrow & Maddi Miller
Co-Chairs, Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub Indigenous Advisory Group

G’day, Kaya, Warami

Welcome to the NAIDOC edition of Urban Beat. NAIDOC week is an important time for all of us as an opportunity to reflect on the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. This issue of Urban Beat focuses entirely on the Indigenous activities of the Clean Air and Urban Landscape Hub, and how Indigenous perspectives can, and should be shaping our urban spaces.

We are the co-chairs of the CAUL Hub’s Indigenous Advisory Group. This group is a fantastic team—we come from many mobs, with varied professional backgrounds.

This diversity means we can provide many points of view to shape the research of the Hub. We are especially here to advocate for Indigenous involvement and employment in Hub activities, and to make sure that research projects empower Indigenous peoples by making meaningful translations back to communities.

Cities in Australia are Aboriginal places. The traces of our ancestors are always present in the heart of modern cities. Our stories and songlines are still there, our stone tools are still embedded in the earth under tall buildings, our scar trees still stand strong and proud in urban parks. Aboriginal culture is resilient and strong and we are here to show it to the world.

But have Aboriginal voices been heard in urban research? Has anyone asked Aboriginal peoples how they would frame research questions? The CAUL Hub provides an exciting opportunity to facilitate Indigenous-led research in urban planning and we are particularly pleased with the number of researchers from the Hub that have supported the vision of putting Indigenous aspirations and leadership at the very centre of research activity.

The concept of caring for country, for nurturing the Mother Earth so that she may nurture you, is vital for Aboriginal peoples. There are synergies between caring for country, and urban research. Researchers seek to understand the effects our cities have on the environment and on ourselves, and how those effects can be minimalized, or ultimately negated. The feature article for this issue of Urban Beat is a fantastic piece by Linda Kennedy on the issues about how the unique perspectives of Indigenous Australians can contribute to the future of our cities.

Of course in many ways, we aren’t so different from other communities. Urban research looks at how changes to cities impact individuals and groups. We all share the same spaces and the same questions are relevant to us— how air quality is affected by traffic flows, how well transport systems serve the needs of people. Everyone needs to understand and be included by urban research. If you can get this right for our mob, you can get it right for everyone!

As well as Linda’s feature, this issue contains updates on the Indigenous-focussed research projects of the Hub. So far, these are only a small step. The Hub is still young and many of these research relationships are new. Our culture and communities are old. We are in this for the long haul – the challenge is there to all researchers, managers and policy-makers, in the CAUL Hub and beyond – are you here with us? If you are, Indigenous Australians are ready to help you along the journey.

The theme for NAIDOC week this year is “Our Languages Matter”. Our stories, told in our languages, will always be woven through the fabric of our cities. We are proud to help these stories be heard by all Australians.

Farewell for now, we say “Boorda” from Jason and “Yanu” from Maddi

Knowledge and Integrity

Linda Kennedy

Linda Kennedy is a Yuin woman from the South Coast of NSW. She is an architectural designer and author of the blog - Decolonising Design in Australia’s Built Environment.

As a black woman with a white education in architecture, urban design in Australia is at the forefront of my mind as I live and work when I am both on- and off-Country. My experiences and observations are multi-layered - and the following is a reflection of some of these complexities when considering how government decision making, institutional research and built environment design are increasingly projected as being framed around Indigenous perspectives.

Since invasion, urban design and architecture have been used as tools to control and assimilate Aboriginal people - to force us to live in the same manner as white people. As these impacts have damaged and devalued our cultures and ways of living, they have simultaneously and irreversibly destroyed our sacred lands.

Our ways were (and often, still are) seen as inferior to the mainstream, and the documentation and research of Aboriginal people has largely observed us from an anthropological perspective of curiosity as opposed to identifying the value in our knowledge and our refined systems of living. The types of spatial research being supported within educational institutions is reflective of the shifts in government policies, from assimilation, to integration, to self-determination, through to the reconciliation movement - and built environment design research within institutions has also influenced government policies and guidelines that impact Aboriginal people, particularly regarding Aboriginal housing.

The current political context in Australia is highly charged with government-lead discussions of constitutional reform being combated by grass-roots level deliberations of sovereignty. My day-to-day lived experience in my own community shows a huge disconnect between government decision makers, institutional researchers, spatial designers and mob on the ground. This disconnect is increasingly more contentious to challenge as research papers, grant outcomes and design projects are, in writing, based on Indigenous perspectives.

So, what does it mean for research and design to be based on black perspectives? And who benefits from the inclusion of black perspectives? From my observation and experience, often the inclusion of Aboriginal knowledge in research or design is only reflected in the mainstream perspective of outcomes, with minimal inclusion of Aboriginal ways of knowing and doing in the research or design process. Within the research realm, this often means that research questions and methodologies are designed by non-Aboriginal academics, and consultation processes are often mainstream and designed to be approved through the research institution’s ethics application process rather than to increase participation and inclusion of Aboriginal people. To me, this is a current version of a check-the-box mentality which is further institutionalising Aboriginal knowledge and perspectives.

Who benefits? Who holds the decision making power? Questions here arise for me as a Yuin woman, a designer, a researcher, a writer, a teacher, a student: How do we, as blackfullas with obligation, responsibility and accountability, to our Country, to our communities - how do we utilise our skills, interests, knowledges, histories, passions - to assert our sovereignty through the work that we do whilst maintaining integrity?

Rather than being stuck within the institutional frameworks of urban design, architecture, research, and sprinkling on some blackness in the process - how do we move forward to asserting our sovereignty through our work. How do we flip the power play and stop indulging in the frameworks that continue to oppress and control us?

Reality is - there are some smart, passionate and skilled non-Aboriginal researchers within institutions. There are some brilliant, passionate non-Aboriginal designers. How can we move forward with these people in a way where the benefits and decision-making power can be maintained by Aboriginal people when it comes to research and design based on black knowledge?

It is easy to push the (relevant and deserved) blame onto the institutions and ask and beg and kick and scream for them to decolonise their research methodologies and design processes. It’s not going to happen overnight, and the negotiation process will not be simple. Some things for us as blackfullas to think about and use as negotiation tools when deciding if we will engage and share our knowledge with intuitional researchers and designers:

Calling out mediocre engagement processes - Often as Aboriginal people we just say “yes” when white people want to document our knowledge because we are well aware that without documentation, our knowledge can be lost. We can ask for more - how will our communities directly benefit from the engagement process? How can the process be used to empower our communities? How can this be done beyond minimum standards?

Requesting transparency of economic distribution - Institutions receive big money for research projects - and while academics in universities maintain consistent employment - very little of the financial compensation filters through to Aboriginal people contributing our knowledge. Ask to see the budget. Not happy with the distribution of funding? Negotiate.

Inviting researchers on Country or into community - It can become tiring and frustrating when sharing knowledge with people who don’t have a holistic understanding of our communities and our Country. If you’re feeling generous, invite them out, without the burden of institutional timeframes or agendas.

Non-negotiables - It’s up to us to be staunch and non-negotiable when it comes to intellectual property, ownership and accessibility to our knowledge. Who should maintain IP? How do we want our communities to access the information? Who authorises access to this knowledge?

If we want to see shifts in the way that our knowledge is collected, stored and utilised, we need to assert our position and maintain our integrity. We have more influence in research institutions and design than we do in government. If we can influence these institutions and designers to lead the way in supporting our self-determination as Aboriginal people when it comes to Indigenous perspectives - we are one step closer to shifting government’s current position whereby non-Aboriginal people have more say on Aboriginal affairs than our own mob.

The Department of the Environment and Energy’s Indigenous Advisory Committee

Indigenous Australian perspectives guide the work of the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub at the research level. They also help to shape the management of the whole National Environmental Science Programme through the work of the Indigenous Advisory Committee for the Department of the Environment and Energy.

As well as helping to shape the NESP, the Department’s Indigenous Advisory Committee considers issues of environmental policy and management of concern to Indigenous Australians nationwide. This includes matters specifically focused on Indigenous-managed lands, such as the Indigenous Protected Areas that have been voluntarily dedicated by traditional owners to be part of the National Reserves scheme.

It also makes sure that Indigenous voices are heard with respect to policies applicable across Australia, such as the Emissions Reduction Fund, or the design of the Reef 2050 plan, guiding conservation strategies on the Great Barrier Reef over the coming decades.

One member of the Indigenous Advisory Committee who is perfectly placed to contribute to environmental management is Kuku Yalanji woman Leah Talbot. Leah has just completed a PhD on understanding the conditions under which Indigenous governance can recognise and support Indigenous knowledge in protected areas, in Australia and in Sweden. She is also a member of the CAUL Hub’s Steering Committee, representing the Hub’s Indigenous Advisory Group.

In describing her work, Leah says “In order for effective and improved management and governance of protected areas, my research shows that Indigenous governance can recognise and support Indigenous knowledge when Indigenous Peoples’ expression of sovereignty, nation-state recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and equitable shared governance are supported by Indigenous self-determination, empowerment and leadership. These are the key influences on Indigenous knowledge application in Protected Areas.”

A question that is of particular interest to the Indigenous Advisory Committee is how to protect the intangible heritage of Indigenous Australians—the stories, songs, language and knowledge—alongside the tangible aspects of heritage—the places, artefacts and material culture.

This aspect of the Committee’s work is particularly relevant to the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub. While Australian cities remain Aboriginal spaces, they are also sites that have in many cases seen enormous disruption to both physical form and cultural values. Identifying, conserving and applying Indigenous knowledge in urban spaces is an important component for urban research today and in the future.

According to Leah “The CAUL Hub is embarking on some very exciting research work in this space and their support to promote and provide opportunities for Indigenous voices and knowledges in research to emerge and come to fore front is equally exciting.”

Research Project Update: CAUL Hub Indigenous Seasonal Calendars and Air Quality

Steph Beaupark
Indigenous Knowledge Research Intern, Centre for Atmospheric Chemistry, University of Wollongong

Traditional Indigenous knowledge may help the understanding of air quality in Australian cities. That was the idea that sparked the interest of CAUL Hub researchers at the University of Wollongong, and is the basis of the Indigenous Seasonal Calendars and Air Quality research project.

It is well-known that air quality changes on a seasonal basis. Knowledge of seasons as understood by Indigenous Australians may provide a better understanding of this variability than the European seasons that have been adopted in the past for analysis, but which do not suit Australian conditions very well.

The Indigenous Seasonal Calendars and Air Quality research project is being led by Stephanie Beaupark, the Indigenous knowledge research intern at the Centre for Atmospheric Chemistry, University of Wollongong. An outline of this project was given in the last Urban Beat.

It is common to encounter difficulties whilst conducting research involving indigenous knowledge. Stephanie started research based on a seasonal calendar reported to have been from the Dharawal people of the South Sydney/Illawarra region and which has been published by the Bureau of Meteorology. As the research data was collected on Darug country, the aim was to consult with Darug, the Indigenous community of the Western Sydney region, to see if there were similarities. Consultation is very limited at this stage, it has been challenging to develop relationships with the community in the limited timeframe. This is made even more difficult by the extreme disruption seen in and around Sydney through colonialism. Producing a seasonal calendar for either of these regions will be a complex process. Such a research project would need to be undertaken over many years in collaboration with the communities.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Indigenous Australians has much to offer the broader community, but there is a required understanding to apply the knowledge without retrofitting it to traditional European views of the seasons. Understanding how to apply traditional Indigenous knowledge in the broader community without co-opting or commodifying it also remains a challenge.

The team is committed to telling the story of what they have achieved so far, allowing both future researchers and the community, to benefit and to build on the legacy of this project.

Research Project Update: Toward an Indigenous-led research agenda

Lauren Arabena, Indigenous Research Officer,
Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

CAUL Hub researchers recently presented at the AIATSIS National Indigenous Research Conference in Canberra about the project ‘Toward an Indigenous-led urban environmental research agenda’. Held from 21 to 23 March, delegates from across Australia met to discuss Indigenous research around the themes of “Impact, Engagement, Transformation”. The presenters for the CAUL Hub were Indigenous Advisory Group co-chair Jason Barrow, Lauren Arabena and Libby Porter from the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University, and Cathy Oke, the CAUL Hub Knowledge Broker.

The project being undertaken by Lauren, a Torres Strait Islander descendent and Libby begins from the principle that all urban environments in Australia are Aboriginal places. Yet the aspirations and knowledge of Indigenous communities are rarely at the centre of policy or research about how cities are designed, how they grow, and how they are governed. The CAUL Hub project aims to reverse this and ask ‘What would the cities of the future look like if the perspectives of Indigenous peoples were central to their design and management?’

In answering this question, the project seeks to develop models for urban environmental research that privilege Indigenous knowledge and experience. This will necessarily involve the urban research community learning how to engage with Aboriginal communities that reflects the diverse experiences and lives of Indigenous people in cities, and does not merely seek opinions from Indigenous people about a research process that is already underway.

The conference session took the form of a workshop where attendees provided a lot of useful advice and suggestions. The team looks forward to developing the Indigenous Urban Research project further based on all feedback received, and presenting it to future conferences.