Connecting with Country in our cities

30 Apr 2024

First Nations people have 65,000 years of songlines and stories that can help us reconnect with Country and create cities that adapt to a changing climate.

The map of Indigenous Australia reveals more than 250 nations, speaking more than 800 dialects, across a diversity of landscapes. But all these nations are connected by a common cultural system with Country at its centre.

Country is a difficult concept for non-Indigenous people to grasp. It is more than a landscape. It is a belief system, a worldview and a living being that holds all knowledge. This is why Country is spelt with a capital C.

Most Australians – 96 per cent of us – live in urban environments. So, how do we connect with Country in our cities?

“We’ve locked up nature and tried to impose the built environment on nature, rather than connecting it to nature,” said First Nations design specialist Rowena Welsh-Jarrett during one of TRANSFORM 2024’s most popular sessions.

In a wide-ranging discussion with architect Jack Gillmer and artist Alison Page, we heard how Australian cities can be places that forge authentic connections with Country, despite the concrete and steel.

Jack, a proud Worimi-Biripi man and First Nations Lead at SJB, talked about the “latent landscapes that lie below the concrete blankets of our cities”. He pointed to Sydney’s Tank Stream as evidence.

The story of Sydney’s invisible Tank Stream illustrates the consequences of “locking up” Country. Flanked by gums, wattles and ferns, fed and filtered by mosses, the Tank Stream was the first water supply for Sydney’s colonial settlers. But without Aboriginal knowledge, these settlers cleared the trees and underbush along the banks of the stream, loosening the topsoil, as they laid the foundations for the city. Within two years, the stream was polluted.

Construction of new dwellings was halted, tanks built near Bridge Street to retain what little water still flowed, but by 1826, the Tank Stream was replaced by an underground channel which brought water from Centennial Park. The land was sold and developed, and what was once the lifeline of a growing town became an underground drain.

Despite its “concrete blanket”, the Tank Stream continues to flow. When we “look below the urban structures we’ve created”, we discover the rich history of our places and their ability to adapt over millennia. “Songlines are still a part of the fabric of Australia. We can amplify and tap into those in all of our developments,” Jack said.

Reading the code of Country

In a later session, Yerrabingin CEO Christian Hampson referred to Country as a 65,000-year-old “database”.

“Country is the codex that unlocks the largest and oldest environmental database in the world. It has millions of authors, rich with wisdom and a story that continues to grow with each new generation,” Christian said.

How do we read this code to create a better collective future? We start by “being good ancestors,” said Anahera Rawiri (Ngāti Whātua). Anahera, the Principal of Jasmax, joined TRANSFORM from Aotearoa New Zealand.

Jasmax specialises in “bicultural design” that recognises the ancestral relationship First Nations people have with the natural environment as an essential source of wellbeing and identity. “We have a duty and a responsibility to the next generation – Te Āpōpōtanga – to ensure that their lives are better” than those that went before, Anahera said.

Anahera’s colleague, Marianne Riley, Associate Principal with Jasmax, offered insights for non-Indigenous practitioners. "As allies we need to be open to unlearning and relearning,” she said. “Put down the pen and build relationships. From that point of trust, we can move forward together."

Ancient wisdom, fresh perspectives

It has been five years since the NSW Government released the Connecting with Country framework. While some meaningful progress has been made to change the way practitioners and place makers design with Country, the First Nations’ panellists at TRANSFORM agreed that a radical mind shift was still needed. How do we spark that mind shift?

The Green Building Council of Australia has several projects underway to elevate meaningful engagement with First Nations people and integrate a ‘caring for Country’ philosophy into Australia’s built environment. The first is a discussion paper that will inform a nature roadmap for the built environment. Launched at TRANSFORM 2024, the discussion paper emphasises engagement with First Nations communities and opportunities to incorporate traditional land stewardship practices.

Meanwhile, Social Value in the Built Environment, acknowledges that land is intimately tied to long-standing issues surrounding the recognition and empowerment of First Nations communities. Built environment professionals are therefore in a unique position to help to heal historical injustices and navigate the path towards reconciliation.

We can start by treating Aboriginal knowledge and cultural heritage as “vital technical elements of the built environment,” Rowena, a Dharrawhal woman and Director of Cultural Heritage at Bila Group, suggested. This technical knowledge includes deep and specific understandings of seasonality, materials, cultural and ecological elements.

“Have a high expectation of what you are getting out of your cultural heritage reports,” she said.

Landowners and developers must develop “long-term relationships” with Traditional Custodians, and that takes time, added Alison Page. Conversations can’t start six weeks before a development application is due for submission. Consultation must begin early. Where to start? “Go camping with mob,” Alison suggested.

Descendent of the Dharawal and Yuin people, Alison’s work explores traditional knowledges, ceremony, truth-telling and its impact on the Australian identity. When we place Country at the centre of our city-shaping, Alison believes, we can expand our identity with “exciting and interesting places” that are “unlike anything elsewhere in the world”.

If you missed the dynamic speakers and deep discussions at TRANSFORM 2024, don't make the same mistake next year. TRANSFORM 2025 will be delivered on 19–27 March. To get the latest updates on TRANSORM 2025, subscribe to our courses and events mailing list.