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How can we meaningfully recognise cities as Indigenous places?

The Tent Embassy in Canberra has for decades been symbolic of the tensions in Australian cities about recognition, reconciliation and land justice. Dylan Wood/AAP

How can we meaningfully recognise cities as Indigenous places?

The Tent Embassy in Canberra has for decades been symbolic of the tensions in Australian cities about recognition, reconciliation and land justice. Dylan Wood/AAP

Australian cities are inherently diverse places, but that diversity can lead to conflict between different values about what cities should and can be. Our series, Conflict in the City, brings together urban researchers to examine some of these tensions and consider how cities are governed and for whom.


The return of land to Indigenous custodians in Australia over the past 20 years is a dramatic shift in Australian land tenure and management. Yet this revolution has, as yet, barely touched urban Australia.

Public and policy discussion about the future of urban Australia is framed as if Indigenous people were not present, and as if cities were not built on Aboriginal land.

What would it take to think about cities as spaces where Indigenous and non-Indigenous systems, knowledge and values co-exist? What would recognising such co-existence mean for how the future of cities is decided?

Property and racial stereotypes

As in other urbanised nations, Australian cities are one of the main engine rooms of the national economy. Wealth creation is possible because of the system of private property rights that makes cities what they are today.

Property shapes how cities function, how they look and how we live in them. And property fragments urban environments. It chops up the landscape with titles, fences, investment portfolios, development options and planning zones.

In places like Australia, that system of property is imposed on Indigenous lands. It entrenches non-Indigenous property rights and excludes the people from whom the land was stolen.

Most importantly, property works against the recognition that cities, too, are Indigenous places. It is a first important reason why the revolution in land titling and management has not penetrated Australian cities.

Urban areas off limits to land rights

While more than 30% of the continent has been returned to Indigenous control, almost none of that land is in urban areas.

In contrast to Canada and New Zealand, it is exceptionally difficult for Indigenous people to gain access to land in urban Australia. There are few opportunities for land grants, and limited chance of success in native title, as recent research shows.

A second reason is racial stereotypes. Indigenous values are able to be acknowledged in natural but not in built environments.

Places like Kakadu, Uluru and Budj Bim are where non-Indigenous Australia is willing to value traditional custodians’ contribution, knowledge and practice. Yet Aboriginal values in the built environment are virtually invisible.

These racial stereotypes have been held a long time. They cast Indigenous people in urban environments as “too modern” to make legitimate claims. And they cast urban environments as too modified for ongoing Indigenous cultural connection.

In jointly managed national parks, Indigenous majorities on boards of management are now a well-established approach. Yet the idea of having Indigenous people as majority decision-makers over urban development options or metropolitan-scale strategic planning is largely unthinkable.

This is not an Indigenous problem. It is a problem of non-Indigenous racial stereotypes and the power of property rights.

Cities are political spaces of co-existence

Cities are nonetheless places where tensions simmer about recognition, reconciliation and land justice. The Tent Embassy in Canberra is perhaps the most symbolic and is an important model for other Aboriginal actions that assert sovereignty such as in Redfern, Perth, Brisbane and during Melbourne’s “Stolenwealth Games”.

The case is similar in other countries. In Vancouver, First Nations peoples issued the City of Vancouver with an eviction notice asserting unlawful occupation of their lands. The action came after the city council threatened to forcefully remove people, many of them Aboriginal, living in a homeless camp in a city park.

In Honolulu’s Kaka’ako district, there is a direct relationship between the number of native Hawaiians sleeping rough under tarps and the rapid gentrification of their lands by upscale housing developments.

Canada is also the place where we find some interesting examples of urban co-existence between Indigenous peoples and settler governments. The small city of Iqaluit was declared the capital of the Nunuvat territory in 1999, one of many dimensions of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. Iqaluit is a multicultural town under an admittedly constrained form of Inuit self-governance.

In 2014, Vancouver City Council declared the Year of Reconciliation. It passed a formal declaration acknowledging that the city was:

… founded on the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations and that these territories were never ceded through treaty, war or surrender.

It is more than ironic that this is the same council that sought to remove the homeless camp.

On the horizon

Representatives of the Whadjuk Noongar, recognised as traditional owners of Perth, mark the start of construction of Yagan Square in February 2016. Angie Raphael/AAP

In Australia, too, some new opportunities signal possibilities for meaningful co-existence in cities. The settlement of the Noongar claim in southwest Western Australia heralds important opportunities for Noongar access to land and involvement in urban governance in the Perth metropolitan area and beyond.

Earlier this year, the Queensland parliament passed new planning legislation. It makes “valuing, protecting and promoting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge, culture and tradition” a central purpose of planning.

In Victoria, a recent review of Aboriginal heritage legislation has strengthened the role and powers of traditional custodians in the protection and ownership of their cultural heritage. It makes their role in urban development increasingly important.

How any of these opportunities unfold will depend on the willingness of non-Indigenous systems of urban governance and management to shift over. Allowing genuine space for Indigenous knowledge, law and cultural perspectives on urban decision-making would surely be significant to achieving a meaningful co-existence in cities.

Imagining different urban futures

Let’s imagine how urban Australia might be different.

Imagine if caring for country principles were at the heart of the urban development system. Imagine if the planning and design of public space recognised these are some of the only places that Aboriginal people can access a land base in the city.

Imagine if we used density and zoning tools to provide reparation for land theft and to redistribute wealth. Imagine if mainstream urban planning processes recognised continuing co-existing Indigenous methods of land governance. Imagine if we did urban development in a way that honours Indigenous histories, knowledge and relationships with those places.

Wouldn’t that be a meaningful co-existence worth striving for in Australian cities?


Libby Porter will launch her book, Planning for Coexistence? Recognising Indigenous rights through land-use planning in Canada and Australia, on October 14 with keynote speaker, poet, novelist and recipient of the Dr Bruce McGuinness Indigenous Research Fellowship Tony Birch. See here for details and to register.

You can read other Conflict in the City articles here.