Indigenous people and planning: How Australian planning practice has miserably failed

While planning is undoubtedly important in creating better places for people, the connection between people and place, for Indigenous people globally, in all their diversity, is even more profound and central to everyday life.

The importance of a relationship between planning and Indigenous peoples should be blindingly obvious. While planning is undoubtedly important in creating better places for people, the connection between people and place, for Indigenous people globally, in all their diversity, is even more profound and central to everyday life.

Although there have been major changes in the legal and policy frameworks both in Australia and elsewhere that have re-signified the importance of Indigenous people, law, land and knowledge to the practice and systems of planning; this essential shared connection between people and the future of place has barely penetrated the consciousness of the mainstream professional planning community.

The industry of planning and urban development continues to operate in a way that pays little attention to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, rights and knowledges as if it were of little interest or consequence to their practice.

In addition, current planning curricula and requirements for professional competencies have fallen short of preparing planners to productively and ethically engage with Indigenous peoples. In short, we practice planning and produce new planners in ways that persistently and blatantly practices the imperatives and logics of colonisation.

In fact, there are four key obligations to Indigenous peoples that planning fails to uphold.  First is accountability for the role of planning in the dispossession and domination of Indigenous peoples. Second is the recognition that planning,as a jurisdiction, coexists with Indigenous domains of land governance and sovereignty whether or not those are formally recognised. Third, is a human rights obligation under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) of the principle of free, prior and informed consent which stresses a much deeper accountability than merely consultation. Fourth are the legal and policy obligations that arise from specific land rights, native title and cultural heritage frameworks.

Remarkably, few steps have been taken in the fields of planning policy, practice and education to fulfill these obligations. There is a near-total silence on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights, interests and responsibilities in any of the legislative and policy frameworks that govern planning in Australia. A recent development taking place in Queensland  is a commitment to the protection and promotion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge, culture and tradition that is now enshrined as a central purpose of the Planning Act 2016 (Qld). Regarding planning education, very few courses engage students with the ethical, political and legal importance of sharing the planning decision-making process with Indigenous peoples. Recent  changes to the Planning Institute of Australia’s accreditation policy now requires Indigenous content in all accredited planning degrees, which is a major step forward. Yet there is much work to be done to  develop appropriate capacity for future planners  to achieve  this important objective.

It is an indictment on a profession that creates place and builds communities that it has neither public discussion nor formal involvement of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples in the profession’s strategic leadership.  It also has made little effort in terms of education to address this blindness, has no strategy for getting Indigenous students into the profession and has given no substantive consideration to what form the inclusion of Indigenous content in planning education should take.

The scope of change to address this miserable failure of Australian planning and its relationship with Indigenous peoples is intergenerational. It demands commitment, leadership and strategic resourcing across generations of future planning professionals. This can only be achieved by developing meaningful and sustained relationships and partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Co-designing the future of planning in Australia with Indigenous peoples would be an ambitious but entirely appropriate aim as a first step in redress.


Recommended Paper Citation:
Porter, L. (2017). Indigenous People and the Miserable Failure of Australian Planning. Planning Practice & Research, doi/full/10.1080/02697459.2017.1286885

First published in The Urban Observer

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