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An Indigenous-led approach to urban water design

Pioneering an interdisciplinary approach that enmeshes Indigenous knowledge practices with mainstream water management techniques, an innovative new collaboration project is underway within Monash University’s Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design.

The project – Repairing Memory & Place: An Indigenous-led approach to urban water design – will be supported by a grant from the Australian Research Council’s Linkage Project scheme and focus on the bayside coastal area in Melbourne’s south-east, Boon Wurrung Country.

The project is being led by Monash University’s Professor Brian Martin, N’arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs AM and Professor Nigel Bertram in partnership with Boon Wurrung Foundation, Melbourne Water Corporation, Museums Victoria, Bayside City Council and City of Port Phillip.

Indigenous thinker, theorist and artist Bundjalung, Muruwari, Kamilaroi man Brian Martin said the project will be Indigenous led and approached from an Indigenous way of thinking, taking a holistic approach to knowledge production and application.

“Disciplines within the faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at Monash and generally in the field of practice and industry are categorised and divided into different areas, but Indigenous knowledge production creates a point of synergy between these multiple fields of inquiry,” he said.

“While disciplines are separated into different areas, an Indigenous way of understanding the faculty is that these disciplines are all creative practices. They manifest in different forms, but they are not separate from Country.

“The research team comes from a range of different disciplinary backgrounds. I am an Indigenous thinker and theorist, but also a visual practitioner and artist as well. I bring that practice-based Indigenous approach to the research. But we all have different views.”

Interdisciplinary insight

Martin said that while the project will take an interdisciplinary approach to research, it is absolutely integral for the work to be led by Indigenous thinkers.

“It’s about bringing a holistic team together under Indigenous leadership. This is why Senior Boon Wurrung Elder N’arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs AM is one of the Chief Investigators on the project as well,” he said.

Aunty Carolyn Briggs said her recent work on Boon Wurrung Country has involved understanding oral traditions through Western frameworks, but also creating a narrative around place, and memories of place.

“Country is a living entity. This place is connected to my Country. It’s the biggest wetland in Australia. We have never really unpacked that knowledge. All of those areas have been locked away from us. And now we can start to unpack that knowledge collectively,” she said.

“The members of our team all bring something different, and in turn we bring our values to this work, as well. This is a new approach to learning within the academic framework. The formation of this research will hopefully build better connections.”

Bringing urban planning expertise to the team, Catherine Murphy said the involvement of industry partners is important to the work, with the research aims linking back to the broader context of water management governance.

“In the Monash Urban Lab, we have been doing research on water-sensitive urban design with the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities looking at the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, considering the old, swampy lowlands that exist there,” she said.

“We are particularly aware of the lack of knowledge about prior uses of the land before European settlement. Over time, we have started to engage with N’arweet and others about that.

“One of the main things that we highlighted was the lack of knowledge about the different ways the land had been used prior to settlement.”

Dr Laura Harper is an Architect and works within Monash University’s Urban Lab, mapping the city and bringing together spatial information, specifically on Country and in place, that comes from different sources.

“A lot of the things we are investigating are things that we can’t easily see,” Harper said.

“A big part of our collaborative approach to this project is thinking about different ways to envisage and how to communicate information that’s not just a planned map of a city, but also oral information, or sound, or things that we can’t see that are underground.”

Dr Marilu Melo Zurita joins the team from UNSW, Sydney, conducting research within the field of human geography, particularly groundwater, paying attention to subterranean spaces and their connection to surface processes.

“This project is just beginning, but even the process of putting the project proposal together has been collaborative. It emerged through talking, thinking together and listening, and actively paying attention to connections,” she said.

“The inception of the project itself is a result of this way of thinking about and knowing Country.”

Leadership in the research team also includes architect Professor Nigel Bertram, whose research investigates the intersection of natural and human-made systems in the city, with a focus on regenerative outcomes.

Meaningful methodology

Martin said the project is about creating synergy between disciplines, but also within the methodological approach to knowledge gathering and communication, ensuring respectful engagement, co-design and co-production processes with the various partners.

“The brief for the project is premised on Indigenous knowledge production, which means we will be taking a qualitative approach to this research. This is through evolving Indigenous knowledge practices, like yarning circles,” Martin said.

“Initial stages of research will involve a full literature review, taking a close look at what’s already been written, but also bringing the lived experience from yarning circles and community members.

“This is where the on Country learning happens, premising ancestral memories, ancestral stories and narratives of Country. And even reconfiguring how we interpret the literature that has been written about these things, too.”

Harper said a big part of the work is about how to re-visualise narratives, and that the findings of the project will also be delivered through an exhibition at Museums Victoria.

“It will be great to use the exhibition to test creative practice approaches to communicating these ideas,” she said.

“Part of this is developing unusual or novel ways that industry might communicate and engage with this knowledge. We want to expand the way we are thinking about and representing water.”

Industry involvement

Martin said the project reflects an emerging method of research, a new way of approaching how to understand and integrate narratives that intersect old and new knowledge, one that will help inform industry in terms of best-practice.

“The engagement methodology is really important to this research. It will also become an exemplar for organisations, water authorities and councils, for conducting proper deep listening and engagement moving forward,” he said.

“It will be an example for how to go about collecting knowledge and information. The how is sometimes more important than the what. It could be used in future as a best-practice model.”

Murphy said the project’s industry partners are very interested in how the processes of the work can help them understand how to embed Indigenous ways of knowing and cultural values into their own process.

“Our partners want to know how to engage with Traditional Owners in meaningful ways that informs the broader urban planning and governance world in which they operate. This project aims to inform that territory as well,” she said.

“As such, the industry partners are going to be actively involved. A lot of their contribution is through staff time. They will be participating in workshops, yarning sessions and on Country field trips.

“Our industry partners have a range of policies, strategies and plans, like cultural, climate, reconciliation action and environment plans, and they want to see how this project can contribute to those. Their intention is very much to be a part of the project and to let it inform other work.”

Furthermore, Martin said the project will also be recruiting an Indigenous PhD to the project: “This is about building capacity for our mobs as well”.

Acknowledging Country’s lifeline

Aunty Carolyn said the project is about addressing the fundamental importance of water to Indigenous people, to Country, and ensuring that this is understood and incorporated into broader practices and attitudes towards water.

“Water is integral to Country, it is the lifeline. And that lifeline is a part of our being. Trying to unpack this and understand how it connects to the bigger picture is crucial,” she said.

“Western knowledge practices work in silos. We need to reconcile these approaches with the strong living entity that the water brings to us within the community. Indigenous people are brought in as an image, but governments don’t really invest in our way.

“This project is about embedding them into our way, showing that they have a responsibility to all people that live in and around these areas that our lifeline travels through. These waterways are not an object.

“This is about more than reconciliation, it’s about reciprocity. We can research from an academic framework, but we are also bringing living memory to this work.

“Indigenous people have been documented from the outside enough. Now we will be involved in creating the story about this living entity that we all benefit from.”