X-ray goggles and imagination: what do we see in our towns? Decolonising Cities symposium

Seeing your hometown with fresh eyes is always a good thing, even (especially) when that’s a bit uncomfortable. Lured by the challenging concept of “Re-Māorifying”, Talk Wellington’s Isabella Cawthorn found some home truths and fresh perspectives about Porirua – and all our towns.

It was too good to be a coincidence. I was reading the chapter “Māori and the City” in The Big Smoke when I heard the word “Re-Māorifying” on the radio in a piece about the  Imagining Decolonised Cities design competition and symposium. Intrigued and challenged, I went along to the symposium with ignorance and curiosity, and it wasn’t five minutes before I had the first of many “Whoa, I’d never thought of that!” moments.  

This article gives the big eye-opener that this Pākehā  Wellingtonian experienced, plus some of the really resonant ideas that stuck with me. (A longer take on it by Salient is here).  Talk Wellington will be looking much more into this area, because it’s a rich source of food for thought.

The big eye-opener

The very premise for Imagining Decolonised Cities (IDCs) is hidden in plain sight for many Kiwis.  Look around at Wellington’s towns and cities: most of what you see has been developed in ways that have marginalised or ignored Māori culture and values.  Overwhelmingly, the buildings, the layouts of suburbs and centres, the streets, the management of earth, vegetation, water, sewage, commerce… they manifest English and Pākehā priorities and principles of what’s a good city.  (Or what those with power think is important at the time).  

This isn’t a wholly bad thing; our cities offer quality of life that many other countries envy.  But what if we developed our towns with a different approach – one that equally  privileged both Māori and Pākehā principles? How would they look, feel, work – and are there ways they would be better?

The organisers of IDCs talked about needing imaginary x-ray goggles to see the indigenous places that our modern cities have built over. But the speakers – and the competitors in the design competition – were looking to the past, the future, and with different perspectives on the present. There were dozens of ideas and concepts in the discourse of “What if we developed our towns in a different way” (one talk is here). My brain was fizzing after just a few hours, but here are some of the ideas I carried away.  

NZ cities, and most Western ones, comprehensively disconnect people from nature – physically, psychologically and spiritually.  

Some separation is vital, so we can get on with stuff without incessant disruption by natural processes (mud, animals, flooding, nightfall, diseases).  But this extreme disconnection means we’re collectively too accepting of two bad things: the massive harm that cities wreak on the local environment, and the psychological effects of disconnection from nature.

This is particularly painful for Māori.

At IDCs I learnt that cities’ extreme environmental footprints, and the resulting disconnection from nature, is a particularly heavy burden for Māori people.   My summary: for Māori, someone’s relationship to the land is genealogical, spiritual, and fundamental; a vital undercurrent that helps explain who you are. It’s therefore not surprising that the barriers that cities and orthodox urban development grow between us and the natural environment are felt more keenly by Māori than some other groups in society. So it’s not really surprising that all other things being equal, the same phenomena (harm to the natural environment and social disconnection from it) tend to be felt more strongly by Māori.

Everyday human connection

For a variety of reasons – but quite without intention – the built environment of Anglo-Saxon towns and cities has broken down the kinds of social connections that used to exist. Settlements in the British Isles used to have the kinds of strong and comprehensive social connections across families, extended families, and villages that sounded remarkably similar to those Māori treasure now as a fundamental part of being Māori. But since the 19th century (thanks to industrialisation, the growing scale of cities, and especially since the mainstreaming of the private car and its transformation of our urban fabric), it’s become much rarer to have a built environment that enables, let alone encourages these kinds of connection.

I had to think about this but it came clear when one of the speakers asked: how regularly and well do people in NZ towns and cities interact IRL with their extended family members, especially across generations? How well do we know our neighbours, the people near whom we live?

I realised that the “village” idea – a place where you can be regularly in touch with relatives in a low-stakes way, where neighbours look after each others’ kids all the time, where old or vulnerable people are looked out for by the community – now has to be deliberately built. The standard forms of our built environments, added to the “faster pace of modern life” (itself a dubious concept) mean this good stuff is now kinda hard: and if you don’t make special effort, this stuff doesn’t generally happen.

This is, I heard, a crucial part of being able to be Māori, and yet it sounded like a fundamental element of good design for all humans.

Imagining decolonised cities: better  

If we approached urban development from a different angle – a more “kaupapa Māori urban development” –  our cities would probably have a very different relationship with our environment.

This would mean:

Less diverting, burying and straightening of urban watercourses, rather enabling them to follow their more natural meandering path, with vegetation on the banks

Less of towns turning their backs on important bodies of water, severing us from them with busy roads or big blank buildings.

A satellite photo of Lower Hutt
Harbour city

Less discharging waste into our water – this shouldn’t be the first option, or even the last. Aquatic (freshwater) and marine (salt) ecosystems need to be healthy.

More respect for the natural contours of the land, rather than cutting and filling gullies, digging and rearranging the landscape. We can use appropriate construction and layout to fit ourselves into the natural landscape.

A digger and pile of dirt at an earthworks building site.
Earthworks – photo courtesy Wellington City Council

More diversity in residential housing, including of house size and neighbourhood layout, to encourage and enable well-connected communities, across families, neighbours and generations.

A conceptual layout of a housing development based on kaupapa Māori values.
Papakainga layout concept by Perception Planning

Some of the advantages of a more holistic approach to urban development are not inherently Maori, they’re ubiquitous in many European towns and in the Pacific. And some IDCs speakers’ examples of “more Māori-fied” urban form just looked more sustainable, both for people and the environment.

By the end of the symposium, I wished NZ’s urban history had reflected a more equal standing for Māori and Pākehā philosophies of development, so the best of both worldviews could have grown our cities.

So what now?  Well, watch this space!  

Land and development involve complicated social, cultural and economic politics – Wellington is no exception. Small steps to reflect history can cause outrage (sometimes by the media); roles are becoming more complex as iwi Māori become urban developers, sometimes with a mix of kaitiaki and profit motives; and government bodies are starting to think about more socially and environmentally sustainable development.

TalkWellington will be exploring ideas around colonialism and other attitudes that have influenced our towns and cities, look at whether we’re getting places that are good for us and our kids, and some ways that we can have an influence to get the best possible places to live.”

In the meantime, take a look around.

How much are these good ideas evident in your town or suburb? Is it working for your townspeople? What could be different, and why?

3 comments on “X-ray goggles and imagination: what do we see in our towns? Decolonising Cities symposium”

  • thinker says:

    This is all well and good but what about wen maori are the ones building developments with lots of earth works?

  • Guy says:

    There have been some good recent designs for Porirua from students at the Architecture School. A lot of them proposing what you are talking about ie opening the beach front up to the town Centre, and vice versa.

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