Inside Story

“If we care for Country, it will care for us”

What happens when the idea of Country is integrated into how Australian cities are planned?

Sarah Barns 17 August 2021 2936 words

Symbolic associations between people and place are being imprinted into new precinct designs. Darug Land 2019, courtesy of the artist, Leanne Mulgo Watson.

Uncle Vic Simms stood in front of the crowd gathered to launch the Guriwal interpretive trail in Sydney’s Centennial Park last May. “This land is your land as well as our land,” the Bidjigal man from La Perouse told the crowd, welcoming them to Country. “We all belong.”

Simms invited the onlookers to come closer to his smouldering fire of eucalyptus leaves, its cleansing herbal smoke wafting in the cool breeze around smiling faces. Feeling the smoke on your face, in your lungs, it feels good to know you belong here. Among the guests were planning and public spaces minister Rob Stokes, Sydney mayor Clover Moore and Suellen Fitzgerald, chief executive of the city’s newly amalgamated parklands authority, the Greater Sydney Parklands.

The inclusivity in Simms’s welcome — we all belong here, it’s your land as well as ours — feels generous given that this land, never formally ceded by traditional owners, was effectively stolen by the British. It also speaks to the way Australians of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal descent are increasingly working together to inscribe Indigenous ways of knowing and belonging into everyday culture.

Simms was inviting those present to see their place here through a Country-centred lens, a message affirmed by D’harawal Saltwater knowledge keeper and artist Shannon Foster, who created new interpretive signage for the trail. “Country unites us,” she explained to the crowd. “It’s still here, before the concrete and the glass.”

The idea of Country, an Aboriginal way of understanding connection to land, sea and sky, places the human within complex, animated landscapes of symbolically charged meaning — reviving pre-European ways of occupying Australian places. If the idea of Country is shaped by the retrieval of old ways, and of “deep time,” it is also being mobilised as a future-focused design language for Australian cities.

With momentum towards Country-centred urban design now growing, the next few decades may yet see a new Australian urban typology emerge. In this emerging future, Indigenous architects, designers and knowledge holders play the role of leader and vision-maker, their ideas and symbologies shaping built environments for future generations. How their visions are transcribed over coming years into new urban precincts — of concrete and glass, and of regenerated riverways, new community centres, housing typologies and building materials — will be worth watching.

From lost time to deep time

There is something exhilarating about this idea that we are living on a land where the energies of ancestors continue to enfold and enliven the spirits of everyday places, animating hard and soft matter and the air in between, taking us beyond the humdrum worlds of everyday streets and regimented lifestyles.

I am a non-Aboriginal person whose career has centred on the meanings and attachments we bring to places, and in particular how our various symbolic attachments to place are used to animate the collective arts of city making. Educated to understand history through a European lens, I quickly learned that to look for historical meanings and attachments to place, as an Australian, is to constantly negotiate sites of erasure. We are, as the late art critic and historian Robert Hughes remarked in a 1998 National Trust lecture, “a nation built on the need to forget.” Relatively little of the history of Australian cities remains etched in their built form: all too often we make new places of symbolic and cultural importance by erasing their past and starting again.

I am also an eighth-generation descendant of convicts and emancipists; I trace my line to the first generation of Australian farmers who worked the land for the Macarthur family. And I’m the third-generation descendant of a Queensland man who fell in love with the ancient landscape of Western Australia while based there during the second world war, uprooting his young family to move to a place that was, in his eyes, “closer to God.” I’ve always sensed a kind of hauntology lurking in my fascination with places, and their lost histories, perhaps propelled by a kind of ancestral desire to recover that which has been lost and displaced.

It’s not just me though. A sense of the hidden past pervades much writing and connection to Australian places. The poet Judith Wright wrote of this loss and erasure in her poem “Bora Ring,” conjuring the sense many Australians feel living in a land dispossessed, where “the song is gone; the dance is secret with the dancers in the earth.” In her introduction to Dancing with Strangers, an account of the first moments of British arrival in Sydney Harbour, historian Inga Clendinnen laments how much was lost in those first years of settlement: “In my view the sacred world of the Australians in 1788 — the world of mind and spirit, none of it written but stored in landscape, artefact, dance and story — is closed to us outsiders.” In People of the River, Grace Karskens traces the “lost worlds” of early Australia, and wonders whether early settlers were forced into a state of disenchantment by their ignorance and neglect of Aboriginal spirituality.

A Country-centred orientation thinks differently about this sense of loss. To Aunty Rhonda Radley, a Gathang language teacher and Birpai Elder, “When we listen to Country, we learn that time isn’t linear. We can connect to people across many different times, around the idea of place, and of Country.” Many Indigenous people are guided by ways of viewing the recent and ancient past as at once personal, familial and geological. Loss is reframed as renewal. Nyura yin-gu mara-la barray-gu, nyaa-gi, ngarra-gi says Aunty Rhonda in Gathang, a language recently considered close to extinct but now undergoing a revival: “You all have come here, to this country to see, to listen, and remember.”

The city as Country?

Indigenous ideas of place often invoke a pre-settlement landscape in which the city is rendered a false artifice. In “Native Born,” Archie Roach sings about the cities and parks looking out of place, “because the spirit’s in the land.” If Australian cities are tamed, regulated, commoditised, and ultimately modern, then Country is ancient, and beyond suppression by humans, who gain their sustenance from its abundance. But that binary is starting to break down.

A cohort of Indigenous designers and architects — joined by many non-Indigenous practitioners across the built environment profession — sees cities as important sites for Country-centred transformation. In the words of designer Alison Page, the work of building can be a way to “sing creation stories into existence,” reinforcing ecological responsibilities to care for land, sea and sky.

Earlier this year Page, a designer of Walbanga and Wadi Wadi descent who grew up in La Perouse, released a new book called Building on Country. In it, Page and her co-author, architect and anthropologist Paul Memmott, describe a groundswell of professional interest in understanding how the rich and complex culture of Indigenous people can shape future design and architecture.

In New South Wales, this groundswell is being embedded within the planning process. Due to be finalised in coming months, a state environmental planning provision called Design and Place will require all projects to “start with Country as a foundation for place-based design and planning.”

What does this mean in practice? To Page, Country-focused design repositions the built environment as central to “ancient conversations about the human connection to nature.” For Danièle Hromek, a spatial designer of Yuin/Budawang descent, “When you start a project with Country and embed it all the way through as the heart of that project, that can inform the work of others, even before architects are brought in.” This positions Aboriginal people quite differently to more traditional forms of “Aboriginal consultation,” which risks engaging with traditional custodians too late in the design phase of a project.

A Country-centred approach allows Aboriginal perspectives to shape the very fabric, design and identity of a place as it is worked into being by a range of other contributing professions and traditional custodians, incorporating the work of architects, engineers, planners, community facilitators, approving agencies and more. Through her consultancy Djinjama Indigenous Corporation, Hromek works with a number of NSW government agencies on urban transformation projects. “I try to ensure Country is not only imprinted into a final work but also shapes the vision and intention of a place.” This vision might be expressed through its masterplan, which in turn guides the principles through which a place can be developed.

“We took the totem of the lyrebird,” she explains, “and used it to design a justice precinct in Campbelltown.” The lyrebird is known for its performance: it dances and contorts itself to create incredible mimicries for curious audiences, shifting the gaze of a potential predator towards itself, and away from its nest. The character of this totem bird inspires spatial ideas for design. “You ask people to look this way, while the people who need to be protected are over here,” says Hromek. “That creates a clever solution to a problem, which is directly informed by Country.” She locates the presence of sacred hills nearby: she uses these to inform the spatial orientation of buildings, allowing resident populations to maintain important sight lines to the hills.

Symbolic associations between people and place are imprinted into new precinct designs. “The soils, the ecological system as a whole, can tell us how we should behave here,” Hromek says. “We can ask Country, what should we do here? If you know how to ask, Country can communicate and can absolutely tell you.” She finds this approach can inform everything from where accessible lifts should be, to how a facade could look, or how to behave there. “Even if it’s not in actual form, it’s there in memory, still.”

Thinking and working differently

The NSW planning provision has been accompanied by a draft Government Architect framework called Connecting with Country, led by principal architect and Yugembir-Goori man Dillon Kombumerri. Kombumerri has spent much of the past three decades advocating for Indigenous-led design and architecture. The new framework centres on the need to acknowledge that “profound relationships have been forged with Mother Earth and other ancestral beings,” creating knowledge systems that are part of our spiritual practices and act as a “vast database of wisdom.” It asks government and industry decision-makers to “take up the challenge of thinking differently, working differently, and making decisions that prioritise Country.” Releasing the report, NSW Government Architect Abbie Galvin said, “If we care for Country, it will care for us.”

Rather than viewing land as property to be exploited for human ends, this approach positions our relationship to land as part of complex animated landscapes of ancestral energies and more-than-human perspectives. By extension, this means humans should no longer be the focal point for design decisions about how places are planned and built. Instead, “place making” becomes a practice that recognises the value of places for non-human species and life forms, as well as people. The making of places also becomes a practice of translating ancient symbols and stories into built form — radically reimagining how time is inscribed into environments, and what we can read into their material presences. “What a transformational perspective for Australian designers and architects,” Alison Page writes, “to be part of an Australian design ethos that views the construction of the built environment as an extension of our creation stories.”

We are now witnessing contemporary urban planning and design becoming infused with sacred songlines. These highly symbolic travel paths, connecting sacred places created by ancestors, contain within them what Page calls “vast amounts of ecological data without the written word” and can be used to create new wisdom and practice. Kombumerri talks about water songlines to his colleagues across the NSW government and beyond. These songlines run across the country, linking lakes, rivers, wetlands, aquifers, springs and soaks. From an Aboriginal perspective, many of these are physically and spiritually joined: “These links are reinforced by acts of travelling to sacred places, performing ceremony and singing up Country.”

As Kombumerri explains, a Country-centred perspective allows water to be respected for its spiritual and living rights, more than its functional necessity for human welfare alone. It supports the momentum to grant rivers legal personhood, just as the Victorian parliament did in 2017 when it passed the Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act, the first legislation in Australia to be co-titled in a traditional owner language. The legislation translates as “keep the Birrarung alive” in Woi Wurrung, the traditional language of the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people. It was an Australian first in legally identifying a large river and its corridor, which crosses many boundaries, as a single living and integrated natural entity for protection.

To give space for Country-centred knowledge in the planning and design of future places also points to growing confidence in a distinctively Australian urban vernacular, and a role for those working in built environment professions to reinvigorate what Page calls “ancient conversations about the human connection to nature.” It also places Aboriginal designers and thinkers at the heart of conversations about the future of our cities, and it invites non-Aboriginal people to connect in a meaningful way with the cultures of First Nations people. For Michael Hromek, an Indigenous designer of Yuin/Budawang descent, who works with global engineering firm WSP, the approach is far more empowering for traditional custodians and owners of Country, by allowing Indigenous-led perspectives to guide the vision and principles of a project, and to inform the work of other stakeholders, designers, engineers and communities.

Country-centred values of place?

Presented as a radical rethinking of the human relationship to place, the idea of Country can reframe the values underpinning built environment projects. If thinking through Country can influence the direction a building is oriented, or what materials are used, can it also shift how and what gets valued in a precinct development? To reverse the phrase, if Country cares for us, will we care for it? Can developer contributions from a new precinct, for example, be reinvested into regenerative habitats for at-risk species? If we view “places as Country” as lively landscapes of the human and non-human, deeply interconnected, then can new precinct designs for place support cooler, restorative habitats for both human and non-human life forms in more equal measure? And importantly, could a Country-centred perspective seek to evaluate the impacts and benefits of new developments across broader indicators, to encompass not only economic but also social, cultural, intergenerational and interspecies impacts?

How ideas of Country will negotiate Australian cities’ highly commodified urban landscapes over coming years — and how planning regimes adapt — will be interesting to watch. Some signs of stress are evident in the interaction of different Aboriginal organisations and groups. In New South Wales, Aboriginal sovereignty is enacted not only through traditional connections to Country (via native title) but also through acts of land reclamation. The state’s Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 aimed to compensate Aboriginal people economically for their historical dispossession; decades on, Deerubbin Local Aboriginal Land Council is Western Sydney’s biggest private landowner, and remains focused on its mandate to exploit the land for financial gain — a mandate that doesn’t rest on traditional claims of ownership or connection to Country, as is the case with native title.

For Naama Blatman-Thomas, a University of Sydney geographer who has partnered with Deerubbin LALC, commodified land offers “liberating possibilities” for Aboriginal communities. Funded by the UK’s Urban Studies Foundation, she is looking at how Deerubbin uses “non-traditional” mechanisms of private land ownership and reclamation to advance urban decolonisation and First Nations sovereignty.

But tensions exist between Deerubbin, and the traditional custodians of Western Sydney, the Darug people. The land council does not support membership by Darug people, and cites contests over Aboriginal knowledge of place and Country across Western Sydney in its July submission to the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment’s Design and Place guidelines. For many Darug people, among them descendants of Darug Boorooberongal Clan Elder, Yarramundi, Aboriginal identity was for many years forced underground, a “secret” shared only with a few family members. Today their role as traditional custodians of Country across Western Sydney is widely recognised, including by local and state government agencies, just as land claims by Deerubbin LALC continue to escalate across the region. These tensions are part of the rapidly-developing landscape of Western Sydney, a region where connections to Country and the work of Aboriginal land reclamation appear to be in conflict. (A more detailed discussion of this issue can be found in historian Peter Read’s essay, “Dispossession Is a Legitimate Experience.”)

Michael Hromek is optimistic that different Indigenous viewpoints can be reconciled. “A focus on Country can help different traditional owners and custodians come together around a common focus,” he says, citing his experience working on the $13 billion level crossing removal program across Melbourne. Country is ancient, and it is symbolically charged, but it also remains crisscrossed by waves of dispossession, loss, compensation and commodification, which also continue to animate the landscape. To me, a white Australian, learning to see place through the lens of Country, being led by Indigenous designers and storytellers feels like a powerful way to build future places. As historian Bill Gammage says, if we can succeed in understanding our country, “one day we might become Australians.” And our cities might also reflect the many languages and meanings of Country. Aunty Rhonda’s words come once again to mind: “You all have come here, to this country to see, to listen, and remember.” Nyura yin-gu mara-la barray-gu, nyaa-gi, ngarra-gi.

The publication of this article was supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.