Indigenous communities are reworking city planning, but planners must come to terms with their history

This is the sixth article in our series, Cities for All, which explores how members of different communities live and shape our cities, and how we can create better public spaces for all.


Almost 80% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia live in an urban environment but cities often exclude and marginalize them.

Urban planning and policy have played a central role in this, and the damage can be seen in the key moments and processes that have shaped Australia’s urban environments.

Today, Aboriginal peoples continue to be seen as “out of place” in the city. Their rights and interests remain largely invisible in urban history, policy and planning practice.



Read more: How can we meaningfully recognize cities as Indigenous places?


To rectify the unequal place of Indigenous peoples in our cities and work towards urban land justice, we must consider the planning processes that have contributed to the marginalization of Indigenous peoples throughout Australian history.

Drainage of the West Melbourne Swamp, an important Aboriginal wetland, began in the 1870s under the supervision of the Department of Public Works.
Henry L Cox (Henry Laird)/SLV

Plan for segregation and assimilation

Planning has long imagined that social problems could be solved by the organization and design of space. This is an activity that took place even before the emergence of the profession of “planner” in the 20th century.

Early Australian settlement activities rejected Indigenous systems of law and governance. Colonial agents such as surveyors, mapmakers, Aboriginal protectors and governors sought to evict people from growing towns. They used maps, zones and boundaries to control the movements of indigenous peoples and to symbolically erase their connections to the landscapes.

Between 1927 and 1954, Aboriginal people were prohibited from entering the center of Perth.
Southwest Indigenous Land and Sea Council, Author provided (no reuse)

Populations were segregated on the basis of race when small native reservations were established, ostensibly to “protect and civilize” native peoples. As expanding cities consumed more land and became denser, white anxiety about the threat of disease increased.

But these concerns did not take into account the living conditions of Aboriginal nations. Aboriginal people were seen as a “threat” to public health. In the minds of those responsible, this required their confinement and surveillance in reserves, which were moving away from urban areas, becoming smaller and more neglected.

City limits were drawn and curfews established to regulate when and where Indigenous peoples used urban space. These practices were widely adopted. In places like Brisbane, Darwin, Perth and Broome, borders have been used to control the movement, as well as the economic and social opportunities, of indigenous peoples for decades. These practices continued into the 20th century.

Coranderrk was one of six reservations in Victoria designed to contain, regulate, civilize, convert to Christianity, and police Indigenous peoples.
State Library of Victoria

As Australian Aboriginal policy moved away from segregation towards assimilation, planning reflected and implemented this change. Reserves near towns were closed and sold. Coranderrk The reserve near Melbourne was closed in 1924. In the 1950s the Kahlin Compound in Darwin was closed and its population moved to the more remote Bagot reserve.

Aboriginal people were forced to leave these now isolated reservations and return to urban areas. Inner city suburbs, such as Redfern in Sydney and fitzroy in Melbourne, have become important places to support social and political communities.

These intra-urban sites and communities have been swept away by the wider urban renewal program which has redeveloped cities through rezoning and the provision of new social housing. It was seen as a way to solve poverty.

However, like the 1997 bring them home report noted:

The provision of social housing to Indigenous families brought them into conflict with government authorities and therefore placed them at increased risk of having their children abducted. For example, strict limits on visitors staying in public housing and restrictions on the number of family members who could live together failed to take into account Indigenous family and community relationships.

Aboriginal communities maintained a strong presence in Fitzroy and Collingwood until the 1950s, when the Housing Commission demolished large areas of “slum” and relocated their occupants.
Nick Carson/Wikipedia, CC PER

Urban policy and planning continue to perpetuate the perception that indigenous peoples have no authentic place in urban areas.

However, none of these discriminatory policies and practices have ever been undisputed by indigenous peoples. While it remains very difficult for indigenous peoples whose traditional country is now urbanized to obtain land justice, innovative solutions are being found to these challenges.

Towards urban land justice

Indigenous-led initiatives underway today show how communities are reworking planning to achieve their aspirations. Land use agreements negotiated by Yawuru Aboriginal title holders in the Broome area provide a framework for reclamation and use planning to achieve local visions for commercial and residential development. Aboriginal Architecture Design Victoria is at the forefront of new ways to plan and design built environments.

A young boy walks past a sign at the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Sydney in 2015.
Image AAP/Paul Miller

Within the planning profession, this crucial issue is beginning to attract more attention. The Queensland government has passed legislation which recognizes that planning should value, protect and promote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge, values ​​and traditions.

The Planning Institute of Australia has adopted a Education Policy in 2016, which calls for all accredited university degrees in planning to address the relationship between Indigenous peoples and planning. It requires teachers and students to engage more deeply with the histories, theories and ethics of the profession. These are welcome first steps.

In the long term, advancing an authentic and just relationship between planning and Indigenous peoples means sharing the right to shape the course of urban development and define what issues are and what values ​​matter. Planning thinking, methods, approaches and practice must continue to evolve to support this aspiration.


Libby Porter, Sue Jackson and Louise Johnson are the authors of a recent book, Planning in Indigenous Australia: From Imperial Foundations to Postcolonial Futures.

You can find the other articles in the series here.