Property Australia

Listening and learning from our Indigenous leaders


A series of webinars, hosted by the Property Council and Urbis as part of National Reconciliation Week, brought together three inspiring Indigenous leaders to reflect on the themes of partnerships, community and place.

Listening is at the heart of learning, and the Property Council is currently engaging with people across the industry as it develops its first Reconciliation Action Plan.


Looking through a different lens

Yatu Widders-Hunt is a descendant of the Dunghutti and Anaiwan peoples of the Northern Tablelands of NSW. She is also a senior consultant with Cox Inall Ridgeway, a specialist Indigenous communications, policy, research and project delivery agency.

Widders-Hunt grew up going to rallies and listening to her parents talk about Indigenous issues at home, which sparked her interest in communication and collaborative codesign – a concept “no more profound than in the built environment”.

Widders-Hunt has noticed a shift in thinking away from “consultation and focus testing” and towards models of collaboration and co-design, which are “actually part of a very ancient tradition” in Australia. “Aboriginal communities work on a consensus model, and think about the needs of everyone around us, and the needs and cycles of the natural world.”

Collaboration can be seen as a risk to the process, “but I like to see it as a source of strength,” she said, pointing to a community consultation session with Aboriginal elders for a large Sydney project.

The design team had presented their vision for “colour palettes, doorknobs and shapes of roofs” and wondered why people seemed “disengaged”. In further conversations, the design team discovered the community was less interested in those details. Instead “they wanted design that facilitated stronger connection with the land,” like a laneway that would give people a glimpse of the harbour, glass walls that brought nature into the buildings, and circular shapes that reminded people “they are all equal as human beings”.

Aboriginal perspectives were valuable at each stage of a project, but that means considering “how projects are set up and structured”.

It also requires a deep commitment to learning and listening. “Each time we go to a new community we must learn the protocols and language, determine the cultural leaders – as Aboriginal people we go through this learning process,” Widders-Hunt said.

“We are all on a journey of developing our cultural capability.”


Reconciliation starts at home

Jeremy ‘Yongurra’ Donovan is an internationally renowned artist and musician descended from the Kuku-Yalanji tribe of far Northern Queensland.

An ambassador for the Australian Literacy & Numeracy Foundation, Donovan spent his childhood in 17 different foster homes, saw a book for the first time at the age of six, and “was falling behind from the day I started primary school and I never caught up”. School became “a punishment and a humiliation” and by 13 he found it “easier to get into prison than to go to high school”.

Donovan spoke of the intergenerational trauma within Indigenous families, and how a punitive education system passed that trauma from parents to children. “Illiteracy is a disability” but this is not acknowledged “so you just fall through the cracks”.

Donovan served 11 sentences before the age of 18. After his release in 1997, he headed to his grandparents’ cattle station in far north Queensland and fell under the influence of his grandfather, who spoke nine Indigenous languages. For the first time, Donovan learned to speak his language fluently and connect with his culture. “Language is culture,” he said. Without access to language, Indigenous people are missing “the heartbeat of culture”.

In the last weeks of his life, Donovan’s grandfather told him “you have a responsibility to take any man or woman by the hand and walk them through your music, artwork, stories and allow them to feel what we feel”. This became a “driving influence” in his life.

Since then, Donovan has produced gift cards for David Jones and played didgeridoo to open the Sydney Olympic Games. He’s travelled the world, playing the didgeridoo at countless Australian embassies and performing twice at Buckingham Palace.

Donovan’s story is a timely reminder that a reconciliation action plan is not “just a shiny document that looks pretty because it has dots on it”, he said, but a commitment that “lives and breathes”.

Where does reconciliation begin? “It all starts with where you live,” Donovan said. “What is the history – the true history – of this country? If you are Australian, our culture belongs to you. It's my responsibility to ensure that culture lives and breathes in the hearts of all Australians.”


Custodians of country

Christian Hampson, the CEO of Yerrabingin, is a proud Woiwurrung and Maneroo man and a champion of Indigenous design thinking.

Yerrabingin – a word which means “we walk together” in the language of Hampson’s grandmother – applied the principles of Indigenous knowledge, collaborative design and permaculture to create the world’s first Indigenous rooftop farm for urban food production in Sydney’s Eveleigh.

The farm, which produces more than 2,000 edible, medicinal or cultural plants, and its nearby cultural landscape garden, “blur the edges” between a “beautiful garden that produces food and shares knowledge,” Hampson said.

Indigenous design thinking is “not new” but Hampson has noticed a shift in the last 18 months that is bringing a deeper discussion to placemaking. His goal is to create spaces that “not only capture the diversity of our culture and knowledge, but the identity of the space itself – that’s true placemaking”.

Australian architecture “reflects a composite design principle and identity derived from other cultures” but we have an opportunity to embed Indigenous environmental knowledge and systems to our designs.

We need to “disrupt the consultation process,” though. True collaboration meant giving Aboriginal people “edit and delete rights to the design, which is not normally the case.”

Real change would come when all Australians acknowledged their responsibility as custodians of country. We often hear about land rights, but that comes with responsibility to country, Hampson said. “If you care about the land you stand on, then as far as we are concerned, you share the same principles as we do.”

Australia has a 60,000-year history of placemaking and the oldest living culture to draw from, and that means we have access to “the oldest environmental textbook”.

“The land is our mother, our teacher and our library.”

As the Property Council works on its first Reconciliation Action Plan, we want to hear from members with insight and ideas. Contact Francesca Muskovic, national policy manager for sustainability and regulatory affairs to be a part of our reconciliation journey.