posted on October 28th 2019 in KI News with 0 Comments



 Finally Australia has acted to respect the Aboriginal people’s sacred site in Uluru. We are mere visitors on this land.


“To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral wellbeing and economic prosperity.” (Pascoe, ‘Dark Emu’ p22, 2014)


Bruce Pascoe’s ‘Dark Emu’ has inspired us to reflect on our collaborative experience with the Aboriginal community as we look towards a future in which it is common practice across the field. Pascoe explains that Aboriginal societies were not simple hunter-gatherer economies but sophisticated, with farming and irrigation practices. (Marcia Langton, The Australian) Pascoe details the Aboriginal strategies of agriculture, aq uaculture, preservation, fire and community, reminding us that there is a natural connection between Aboriginal land management and landscape architecture.


We show our support to the Aboriginal community and an understanding of their deep & intrinsic connection to the land, especially as landscape architects. There is still so much progress to be made in landscape architecture in regards to collaborating with the Aboriginal community during the design process. At KI Studio we value designs that rejuvenate environments, are sensitive to our planet, and display a strong sense of social place and consciousness. Our design solutions are formed from respecting the past & its’ forbearers, acknowledging the present community’s place and values and designing with that community’s future in mind.

With these values at the forefront, we reflect on collaboration achieved in KI Studio past. The selected projects to be discussed have been chosen as although they are not the most recent projects, we believe they best exemplify our design approach. The collaboration with the Aboriginal community in these two projects were self-initiated and not a brief requirement. KI Studio continues to collaborate with the Aboriginal community and is proud of the progress landscape architecture has achieved.  We would also like to share a recent project from New Zealand which has recently inspired us on this topic.


  • Landscape Planning for Ngunnawal Estate, Canberra, ACT, Australia 1994-1996

This project involved landscape planning to create a strong green/blue open space structure with prominent ridgelines planted and integrated open spaces /drainage spines in the valleys. This was a project undertaken in unison with Aboriginal people and is an example of how public art can give rise to design collaboration.














Source: KIAH Environmental Designers  1994


This project incorporated landscape community art installation, “The Poles”, undertaken in collaboration with Aboriginal artists, school children and other integrated landscape art/sculpture concepts. “The Poles” was opened by Aboriginal elder Matilda House, with a smoking ceremony. Ngunnawal Estate project was collaboration with Indigenous Artists and local schools. The image below shows elder Matilda House and artist Les Huddlestone with the sculptures.












Source: Hill, R 1994, ‘Cultures, poles apart, meet in Gungahlin’,                          Source: ‘The Poles’, KIAH Environmental Designers

The Canberra Times , 4 December, Page 3



KI Studio (then KIAH* Environmental Designers, with Judy van Gelderen as sole practitioner) was instrumental in making the town of Gungahlin the first suburb in Canberra to have Aboriginal names as streets. This project was an opportunity for the Aboriginal community, artists, school children and landscape architects to collaborate and share a common drive to tell the story of the landscape and Aboriginal heritage.


  • Desert Knowledge Precinct Review of Masterplan, Alice Springs, Australia, 2007

KI STUDIO (then called Kiah Infranet) revised the masterplan and prepared phase 1 landscape design documentation for this special Aboriginal educational facility in Alice Springs. The project encompasses all exterior facilities of the 76 hectare site which included indigenous vegetation restoration, outdoor meeting and teaching places, application of sensitive water design principles and recycling of rain-water and enhancement of cultural landscape elements within the plan. This project involved consultation with the Aboriginal community.

















Desert Knowledge Park, Alice Springs- Masterplan review,  Source: KIAH Infranet, (now KI Studio) 2008. “Kiah” is an Aboriginal word, meaning “a beautiful place”- beauty, in terms of it being in tune with the environment.


Our approach layered the influences of the site, the influences include the landscape in regards to the site, soil and vegetation, then the technical process of how water flows and cleanses, and finally the Aboriginal Culture including art, water and spirituality. Through looking at the site through the layered influences, it allows us to collaborate with the Aboriginal community in many more stages of the design process. This process is illustrated in the diagram below.









The layering of influences. Source: KIAH Infranet, (now KI Studio) 2008



An example of how we have applied these layers of influences is through the water design approach. Aboriginal women of the site mentioned that water holes were gathering spaces. We used artworks to aid us with this interpretation as in respect; we were not permitted to hear male stories. We created a pattern language that reflects the significance of water holes, as illustrated in the artwork of Aboriginal artists..

The water sensitive design approach was to catch the water, infiltrate the water, create soakage areas, emphasis the drainage soakage areas and swales with wet planting species to reflect the bush tucker/ green oasis that grows around the billabongs in the desert.

“Man’s Water Dreaming” by Old Walter Tjampitjnpa. The basic elements of the Water Dreaming are revealed in the “U” sign, the symbol for the Water Man, the concentric circles that represent the waterhole; and undulating lines indicate water running across the sand.” (Source: Papunya Place- Made after the story, page 183)



On the technical side, we reviewed how the water moves through the site and how they could form these water holes. A series of swales and infiltration areas were formed in a way which responded to existing landform yet didn’t interrupt the pathways. These created gathering spaces in the landscape, and meeting places by the water.












Sensitive  Water Scheme, showing swale and infiltration areas. Source: KIAH Infranet, (now KI Studio) 2008.














Alice Springs creek line. Source: KIAH Infranet, (now KI Studio) 2008



  • Example of successful art and design collaboration with Indigenous Community

Collaboration with a country’s Indigenous communities is becoming more mainstream in landscape architecture and we are truly inspired by this.  We have selected a project that has successfully worked with and represented the Indigenous community- Te Whau Pathway, Auckland, New Zealand, Jasmax

This project  is a 12km cycle/pedestrian pathway along the Whau River. Te Whau Pathway is a pedestrian and cycle path following the Whau River with recreational public spaces along the greenway. This project links surrounding communities and aims to restore the river banks.

There is also a strong link between this project, the land and the Māori community, as ‘Te Whau Pathway’ employs concepts and symbolism of local Māori culture into the design. The landscape dominates the site so the artists and designers subtly introduced the Māori artwork into the paving. This approach is site specific and subtle. The pattern fades in and out and is a different texture to the pathway. This approach to collaboration was successful as the designers and the Indigenous community were consulting with each other from the beginning of the design process. The design framework outlines the Māori community’s aims and expectations for the project. This established a design partnership which results in genuine Māori artwork that is not tokenistic. This partnership should be respected and the this approach should be more widely adopted in Australia as the Aboriginal community’s voice should be heard at all times during the design process.












Sensitive integration of indigenous themes in infrastructure design Source: MWH, Monk Mackenzie,Jasmax, 2017, ‘ Te Whau Pathway: Urban and Landscape Design Framework’ Vol. 2, Over arching Principles and Design Concepts’. p. 56



The need for further collaboration with the Indigenous community is an international issue, and we are inspired to see that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are beginning to be included in the design process of landscape architecture. It is important to continue to strive towards reconciliation which entails working in collaboration with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their strengths. Designing shouldn’t be about ‘us’ and ‘them’, but a collaborative and mutually respectful relationship.  Through both projects discussed  and the New Zealand example, we, as landscape architects,  were able to share the design with the local Aboriginal Community and as a result, the designs were enriched and were further connected to the landscape.


Landscape architecture should be progressing towards a completely collaborative future with the Aboriginal community so we can move together and find inspiration in the landscape.




Dr Judy van Gelderen

28 October, 2019