decolonising design in the built environment

Knowledge & Integrity

The following is an edited version of a feature article that was published in the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes (CAUL) Hub's Urban Beat NAIDOC Week 2017 edition. It's an extension of my thought processes re: sovereignty and design. This, in a round-about way, has entered my mind again with the australian government's recent rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart regarding constitutional reform.


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?

As a Yuin woman, a designer, a researcher, a writer, a teacher, a student: I think about how we, as blackfullas, can maintain our obligations and responsibilities to Country and community. I think about how we maintain our integrity in our processes, whatever field that we work in - without allowing ourselves to be stuck in institutional frameworks bound by colonialism, whiteness, oppression. (Read more in my previous blog post: Sovereignty + Spatial Design).

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 institutional 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. In the current national political context, 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 of say on Aboriginal affairs than our own mob.