Dr Sharon Harwood. Photo from the PIA National Awards Night and PIA Congress Welcome Function, Wednesday May 15 2019 at the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre. Photo by Element Photo and Video Productions.

Dr Sharon Harwood took out the top honour at this year’s National Planning Awards for her work advancing the interests of First Nations people in the planning system. She spoke to The Fifth Estate about her journey into this critical arena, what she’s learnt along the way, and why New Zealand is streams ahead (surprise, surprise) on this cause.

The Queensland-based planner and adjunct academic, who was recognised as Planner of the Year at the Planning Institute of Australia’s national awards on the Gold Coast last week, became passionate about advancing the interests of Australia’s First Nations people in planning for a couple of reasons.

Harwood had a strong sense of social justice drummed into her by her mother of Fijian descent from an early age.

“She knew what it was like to be spoken about poorly.

“She brought me up to be very respectful.”

Another catalyst was during a regional planning exercise around 10 years ago, where she felt the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were consulted was “appalling”.

“It was really tokenistic.”

“…even when they owned the land, no one ever considered their development aspirations.”

She’s since worked hard to integrate Indigenous planning into the mainstream planning system, starting with Queensland where she was instrumental in enshrining the obligation to protect, promote and value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island knowledge, culture and tradition into the new Queensland Planning Act finalised in 2017.

At the time she went to New Zealand to speak to Maori planners and see how similar planning regulations operated there in practice before making a submission.

It wasn’t exactly intentional on the part of the government, she says, but her submission was accepted and the result was the first time in Australia that a planning statute acknowledged that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge, culture and tradition.

Although the Act is now almost two years old, she says it’s still too early to tell if it’s having a meaningful impact. She says very few planning schemes have come through under the new Act so far. And without statutory guidelines from the state, she isn’t convinced there will be much change.

Harwood’s plan isn’t to stop there. Her goal is to see the same thing happen across the rest of the country.

And there’s hope that it’s catching on. At the moment, she’s got her eyes on the State Environmental Planning Policy (Aboriginal Land) 2019 recently finalised by the NSW government.

First Nations communities need a chance to shape their own future

Advancing Indigenous interests in planning is about giving these communities the chance to develop their own agendas. This includes a planning system that legitimises their world views.

From there, communities can “talk among themselves” and decide how planning should reflect their own cultural systems and ideas about social cohesion and wellbeing, economic development, cultural heritage protection and the environment.

These elements can then be integrated spatially into local government planning schemes.

What good Indigenous planning is not

What this approach to planning is not, Harwood says, is “planning that is applied to Indigenous people”.

“They choose their direction and their approach. The system has to be mature enough to provide a legal space.”

She’s also offended by tokenistic gestures made in urban design, such as art installations, especially in the absence of any other involvement in planning and development of cities and regions.

“It’s just window dressing.

“They are our first nations people so they need to be [involved in the planning and development process] from the very beginning to the very end.”

She also doesn’t go into these communities with “all the answers”. Collaboration is key, and she approaches this work by offering up ideas to people to see what may or may not work.

New Zealand is streaks ahead

Harwood believes we should look across the ditch for inspiration, and that New Zealand is 40 years ahead when it comes to Indigenous planning.

But it’s not just a “cut and paste job” because in Australia we’re dealing with a completely different system.

For example, the New Zealand planning system acknowledges the Maori world view (kaitiakitanga) and treats rivers (Whanganui river) as if they are humans.

“We have so much to learn.”

As well as her work in Indigenous and remote communities, Harwood continues to work with students in an adjunct capacity through both James Cook University and Charles Darwin University, and is involved in international research programs including the MinERaL project with Laval University, Quebec.

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