chevron parkland optus stadium perth western australia feature
Stadium Park Chevron Park. Credit Peter Bennetts.
  • Meaningful engagement comes from listening, learning, and advocating at every opportunity
  • A heritage assessment can help in telling the story of a place
  • One example includes parklands at Optus Stadium

Aboriginal Australians represent the oldest continuous culture on earth.  

A connection to Country that dates back more than 60,000 years.  

Given the rich history and continued connection to place that Aboriginal people have with their land, the early engagement of Aboriginal stakeholders in the planning and delivery of urban development projects can lead to great outcomes not just for the site but for the broader community. 

Kado Muir, a Ngalia language speaker and desert man offering a voice on cultural heritage through his national role, as Chair of the National Native Title Council starts by acknowledging Noongar elders past, present and future. He focuses in on Noongar Country in the Perth and Peel Region. Mr Muir points to an example in Upper Swan where an archaeological site represents the Aboriginal occupation of the area over 40,000 years ago, making European settlement just a tiny length of time within the context of that extensive history. 

Pictured: Kado Muir. Credit: Michelle Blackhurst.

Mr Muir advises that to tap into that deep connection to place that Traditional Owners have with the landscape and make a positive connection to the social fabric, early engagement is paramount.  

“You’re not a real business if you’re not engaging with diversity and inclusion as your fundamental starting point,” Mr Muir said.   

“I think developers are doing themselves and their clients a disservice by not incorporating the original stories into the design of their projects and what you end up with is a disjunction between place names, which are all Noongar place names, overlaid with imported English names,” Mr Muir said. 

“It’s not too hard, especially in the Metropolitan Region, to make enquiries and build a capability to understand the first Australian story as you engage, because all the place names are all essentially Noongar names, and behind each of those Noongar names is the story about that place.  

“That’s a deep-rooted historical story that, if you really put your creative juices into it, you are able to understand that place as it’s situated in the context of the surrounding landscape.  

“That will contribute to better design and much more comfort for people occupying and using the built environment that is constructed. 

“Settlers holding onto an imported ideal, continue to be unsettled. The time at which you engage effectively with the First Nations is the time that you become a part of that place.”  

Connecting projects to place

According to Natalie Busch, Perth’s Managing Principal of design studio Hassell, early and effective engagement allows everyone on a project to see a place through the eyes of Aboriginal Australians. 

Hassell has been part of delivering iconic projects including the WA Museum Boola Bardip, Optus Stadium including Stadium Park and Chevron Parklands.  They have also supported concept designs for projects such as the Sydney Stadia Precinct – Public Domain Design Competition which was led by Yerrabingin and the redevelopment of the East Perth Power Station into an art gallery featuring Indigenous and contemporary art. 

playground optus stadium parkland
Birak is the first summer when temperatures rise so this play space is about finding places to stay cool – tunnels and burrows. It features “Weebiny Mia- Play House by Sharyn Egan. Credit Peter Bennetts

“At Hassell, we believe the perspectives of Aboriginal Australians are to be embedded throughout the design process for it to be respectful, meaningful, and to enrich people’s lives,” Ms Busch said.  

“Meaningful engagement results from listening, learning, and advocating at every opportunity.  

“The opportunities exist to generate employment, embed cultural safety, and teach future generations about Aboriginal culture. The challenge of many projects is to condense a meaningful process into a tight project program.”  

Mr Muir advises that there are simple ways to start the process of understanding the cultural heritage and significance of a site and the skill sets are out there to assist.  

According to Mr Muir a heritage assessment can help in telling the story of a place, which then feeds into the design and enriches the work that developers do. 

An example of this is within Stadium Park at Optus Stadium, the Chevron Parkland is a 2.6-hectare nature-play space designed to ignite the imagination and connect children and their families with nature and Aboriginal culture. 

“This site is an important place for the local Whadjuk people,” Ms Busch said. “We worked closely with community members to understand the history and cultural significance so that we could best represent their culture and depict their connection to Country. 

long necked turtle chevron parkland optus stadium
Djilba – Yaargan (Long Necked Turtle Dry Creek bed area is a central attraction where children climb the rocks, balance on fallen timber bridges, build towers with pebbles and play in the sand). “Discovery Boyi” by Miranda Farmer. Credit: Acorn Photography.

“Representatives of the Whadjuk community were involved early in the design process to gather a deep understanding of how they’d like their culture to be represented across Stadium Park.  

“They identified the Noongar ‘six seasons’ as the overarching theme to express the Aboriginal connection to the land (Country) in balance and harmony. Hassell collaborated closely to integrate interpretive elements throughout the landscape design from this idea.  

“Woven through the landscape was also a collection of 14 public artworks. Ten of these works are by Aboriginal Australian artists, with eight artists from the local Whadjuk community.  

“In these spaces, visitors gain a sense of the Aboriginal Australian culture and learn more about the traditions and how they relate to the environmental conditions of each seasonal change.  

“What was once a wasteland is a rich landscape for celebrating Perth’s heritage, land, and people – proof that even the most unloved urban places have huge potential.” 

A model for engagement

Mr Muir recommends a simple model that he uses in his consultancy practice as a process for engagement, which is based on the acronym RESPECT.  

“The first step is Research, including a first pass heritage assessment, desktop review, and understanding who the Traditional Owners are,” Mr Muir said.   

“Once you collect that information, the ‘E’ is to Evaluate, then ‘S’ to Strategise what you’re going to do, including who you are going to talk to, when, where and how.  Then you go out and Present.  

“When you have undertaken those engagements, you come back and ‘E’ for Evaluate again and then you Customize your approach. 

“Finally, if there is anything that has not worked, you need to Transform it, and then you start again. 

“Using that flow of activities, you should be able to build a secure engagement process that has strong contribution from the Aboriginal community.”  

New Act making changes

The State Government recently passed the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021 which is aimed at recognizing, protecting, conserving and preserving Aboriginal cultural heritage.  

The catalyst for the introduction of the new Act was a formal Inquiry following the destruction of Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto in 2020.  The destruction of two sacred sites of significance in the area was able to proceed under Section 18 of the previous 1972 Act.  

The inquiry handed down a report in October 2020 entitled A Way Forward, which called for widespread reform on national Aboriginal cultural heritage legislation and native title, a national framework for cultural heritage protection developed through co-design with Traditional Owners, the development of independent funding for prescribed body corporates and for the Australian government to endorse and commit to implementing Dhawura Ngilan: A Vision for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage in Australia. 

The new Act has been met with a mixed response given it was not designed through the recommended co-design process and it also holds a similar capacity to the former Act in regard to Section 18. 

However, moving forward, a co-design process is currently underway to draft the relevant regulations, guidelines and policies that are needed to implement the new legislation.  

“The State Government expects that anyone wishing to undertake works that could impact Aboriginal cultural heritage consults with the relevant Traditional Owners,” a State Government spokesperson said.   

“Consultation with Aboriginal people and informed consent is mandated under the new Act.  

“It represents a significant step towards achieving equity in the relationship between Aboriginal people, industry and Government by replacing outdated Aboriginal cultural heritage laws and removing the controversial Section 18 approval process in favour of agreement making with Aboriginal people.”  

Under the new Act, the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Council is established to provide strategic oversight of the system and local Aboriginal cultural heritage services (LACHS) are to be established in each area of WA.  

Native title holders, by their Prescribed Body Corporates, will be first to become LACHS if they want to. LACHS will talk to Native Title groups and knowledge holders, monitoring what’s happening on Country. 

“The new legislation recognises the needs of urban development, while also respecting Aboriginal cultural heritage,” the State Government spokesperson said.  

“Under the new legislation, similar to Victoria, proponents of proposed activities will need to complete a due diligence assessment prior to conducting their activities. This assessment is necessary to become aware of whether Aboriginal Cultural Heritage is present and whether there is a risk of harm to the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage should the proposed activity be undertaken.” 

The current co-design process will determine the activity categories that will be exempt and the spokesperson advised that some urban development activity will already be exempt under the Act, including the construction, renovation or demolition of a building occupied, or intended for occupation, as a place of residence, on a lot that is less than 1,100sqm. 

On the right path

Regardless of what legislation or statutory requirements are in place, Mr Muir has a key message for the development industry that comes back to a core principle, which is to minimize harm to cultural heritage sites, engage the local knowledge holders and local Traditional Owners and properly design a project based on that engagement.  

“Co-design a project that enhances cultural values, and of course, you’re going to run that through the official regulations and processes, but if you come back to these principles as the first base, then you’re on the right path,” Mr Muir said. 


This story was originally published in The Urbanist magazine, an official publication of the Urban Development Institute of Australia (WA). It has been edited for republication by The Property Tribune. 

The Property Tribune thanks the UDIA WA for the opportunity to republish the work, and share thought leadership in relation to urban development and community creation with our readers.

Read the original copy of The Urbanist by heading to UDIA WA’s website under the News tab.

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