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Why property developers are starting to embrace Designing with Country

Nina Hendy -

Australian property developers are seeking insights from Indigenous voices as part of a more informed and inclusive view of design.

Designing with Country considerations are forming part of new developments well before turning the first sod, with consultations taking place to ensure sensitive sites are protected so that Aboriginal people can access their homelands and to show respect to Aboriginal cultural knowledge.

Architecture and insights firm HDR has named Designing with Country as one of the seven "megatrends" that will inform and define architecture, the built environment and city-shaping in 2023.

As reconciliation takes centre stage in Australia, architecture practices are looking to champion genuine, reciprocal relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians, HDR said upon naming Designing with Country as a megatrend.

"I think our society needs to embrace it," HDR director Jacqui Straesser said. She has been working in this space since early 2021.

Straesser says that while a framework articulating the best approach exists, basic knowledge about how to implement Designing with Country into a new project is hard to come by.

"A lot of developers have fought back against this approach as it isn't mandatory, but it would be good to see that people are taking this route simply because they can see the benefits, even though it may be more expensive. Regardless of this, the benefits are significant," she said.

Consultants that specialise in this space are few and far between. There's Bangawarra, which calls itself a spatial design practice that challenges colonial special practices by sharing Ancestral knowledge and culture during the design and planning stages.

Meanwhile, architectural firms report a growing number of projects that demonstrate knowledge and understanding in this space. For example, the $1.4 billion Sydney office building set to house tech behemoth Atlassian utilised Indigenous architect Kevin O'Brien, of BVN before construction got underway.

A 2020 architectural rendering of the Atlassian building, interior.

The $50 million Office of Environment and Heritage NSW in Kurnell also incorporated a similar process. When releasing the plans in 2018, Neeson Murcutt Architects said: "Design cannot heal the impact of 250 years of occupation, but it can provide a platform for diverse cultures and dialogue".

The NSW Government has also released a draft framework to help developers and architects understand the value of Aboriginal knowledge in the design and planning of places.

The hope is that the document will help Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people work together collectively and with an open mind to unite knowledge around Designing with Country concepts.

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