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Honouring Victoria’s traditional owners in new suburbs

When residents move into two new communities in the Melton municipality, they will be able to walk in the steps of the Wurundjeri, Boon Wurrung and Bunurong 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 with Aboriginal elders from the three local 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 dreaming and creation stories. 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.

These features will be maintained as the creek is part of a future nature conservation area and shared heritage trails will be provided along the length of the creek. The two plans encourage developers and council to engage with traditional owners and consider installing signs and interpretative public artwork to educate new residents about the Aboriginal cultural values associated with landscape.

Indeed, it is important to remember that just because a new suburb might not have many historic buildings, that doesn’t mean people haven’t lived there before. Aboriginal Australians have been living and occupying the land in Victoria for thousands of years, and if you know where to look you will 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 heritage 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 and, 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 cultural heritage advisors. The VPA has a memorandum of understanding with the Wurundjeri and Wathaurung peoples, but we also work closely with other groups as well.

When walking across the land, cultural heritage advisors are able to refer to an extensive mapping program that outlines features of archaeological, cultural or spiritual significance to the local Aboriginal groups, such as Scarred Trees. However, sometimes during a site visit a cultural heritage advisor might identify a sacred site or archaeological 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 suburb of Deanside (the Kororoit PSP) in Melton, our planners worked closely with elders to determine the best location for a six-lane arterial road bridge. We knew that the new areas would need several crossings over the 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 cultural heritage 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 impact areas of significance to Aboriginal people, and proposals about how to manage this.

Likewise, a clear set of expectations has been established in regards to consulting with traditional owners, which can smooth the process and lead to agreed outcomes for the protection of cultural heritage and values.

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 make for terrific inspiration for new built forms, from building colours to street names.

For example, the VPA initiated and lead a major interpretation pilot program in Fishermans Bend, examining how local Aboriginal culture can be reflected in new buildings, infrastructure and public spaces. Many compelling ideas have been discussed, such as public art featuring Aboriginal motifs, stories and audio guides to help rebuild a connection to place and cultural identity for the Aboriginal community. Another idea to passively engender a sense of Aboriginality is for landscape design to use indigenous species, to re-establish a pre-European landscape in open space and parks.

Another creative idea involves an app being created by Wathaurong community leaders. The app will allow new homeowners to learn about the history of their area and the local community’s ongoing spiritual connection to it. The VPA is not leading this latter project, 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.

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