Peter Seamer: Honouring traditional land owners

When residents move into two new communities in the Melton municipality, they will be able to walk in the steps of the Bunurong, Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri peoples. The suburbs, which will one day be home to 55,000 people, will have heritage trails around Kororoit Creek that trace common walking paths of the traditional owners, who would often camp there. By meeting Aboriginal elders from the three traditional owner groups, the VPA and Melton City Council learned that Kororoit Creek is an area of high cultural significance. In fact, the creek is featured in several Bunjil creation stories, which describe it as a mythical place. It is also home to an array of important natural features – such as rocks that were used for sharpening tools – and historical artefacts, such as hammer stones.

To ensure these features are maintained, the VPA will introduce planning provisions that stipulate the creek must be left untouched. And Melton City Council will erect signs and interpretive public artwork around the heritage trails that educate residents about the land’s traditional owners. Indeed, it is important to remember that just because your new suburb might not have many historic buildings, that doesn’t mean people haven’t lived there before. Aboriginal Australians have been living in Victoria for thousands of years. If you know where to look, you will be able to gain an insight into the history and enduring attachments traditional owners have to your area. 

Legal obligations and processes
The Victorian Planning Authority (VPA) places a great emphasis on ensuring our new suburbs respect areas of cultural significance to traditional owners. In many cases, the VPA works closely with elders, council workers and developers to design communities in a way that is culturally sensitive. We do this by firstly investigating whether there are any areas of significance to traditional owners. If there are, we examine how we could design the precinct in a way that will minimise the impact on this area.

Often the first step of this process involves conducting site visits with elders and heritage advisors. The VPA has a memorandum of understanding with the Wurundjeri and Wathaurong peoples, but we also work closely with other groups. When walking across the land, heritage advisors refer to an extensive mapping program that outlines features of cultural or spiritual significance to Aboriginal groups, such as Scarred Trees. Sometimes they might identify a sacred item that has not been previously recognised – an exciting discovery.

After detecting and mapping these features during the site visit, the next step involves working with elders to establish how we can maintain them. For example, when creating the blueprints for the new suburbs in Melton, our planners worked closely with elders to determine the best location for a six-lane arterial road overpass. We knew that the new areas would need a crossing of Kororoit Creek, and wanted to ensure we established an outcome that would disturb the land as little as possible. After extensive discussions with local traditional owners, we established a location that was mutually agreeable. In addition, to accompany our Precinct Structure Plans, the VPA compiles reports that outline the state of existing vegetation and areas of Aboriginal significance. These reports can be referred to by developers when they are completing their cultural heritage management plans – legal documents that are required when applying for a subdivision permit. 

The latter plans are assessments by registered archaeologists about how the development will affect areas of significance to Aboriginal people, and proposals about how to manage this. The fact that Aboriginal groups have been involved in the suburb’s creation from the get-go means they are able to offer developers advice when they present them with their plans. Likewise, a clear set of expectations has been established in regards to consulting with traditional owners, which can smooth the process and lead to mutually satisfying outcomes. 

Subtle interpretations
As planners, we can introduce planning controls that protect certain areas and we can set aside land for features such as heritage trails. However, developers and councils can and do go further than this – often by incorporating Aboriginal culture into community infrastructure and open space. Indeed, stories and information can be a terrific inspiration for new built forms, from building colours to street names. For example, the VPA has been involved in a major interpretation pilot program at Fishermans Bend, examining how Aboriginal culture can be reflected in new infrastructure. Many compelling ideas have been discussed, such as painting bus shelters with traditional patterns and landscaping with indigenous plants. Another creative idea involves an app being created by Wathaurong community leaders. The app will allow new home owners to learn about the history of their area and the local clan’s ongoing spiritual connection to it. The VPA is not leading these latter projects, but we are certainly offering support and assistance where we can. 

Taking initiative
So when you move into your new community, take a moment to appreciate Aboriginal peoples’ ongoing connection to the land. Find out who the local traditional owners are, explore the heritage trails and admire the Scarred Trees. As Australians, we are all living on Aboriginal land, and it is important we recognise this in a meaningful way.

Peter Seamer is the CEO of the Victorian Planning Authority. 

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