In 2018 Professor Michelle Thompson-Fawcett received a Sustained Excellence award in the Kaupapa Māori category (Image: supplied).

A tale of tū cities: The role of Māori thinking in shaping our urban future

In her ceremonial inaugural lecture ‘Whakawhanaketanga toitū: A tale of tū cities’, University of Otago Professor Michelle Thompson-Fawcett (Ngāti Whātua) examined the concepts of “identity in place” and mapped how these ideas have shaped her career. 

The concept of ‘whakawhanaketanga toitū’ is the notion of developing and improving our activities and lives in a way that is sustainable. ‘Sustainable development’ if you like. I’m especially focussing on cultural sustainability in an urban context.

As for the subtitle, ‘A tale of tū cities’, I am not in this instance thinking in terms of two physically separate cities, although I do happen to use examples from two locations: Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland and Ōtautahi Christchurch. In this instance, I’m thinking in terms of the idea of ‘tū’ being ‘to remain, set in place’. The differences are not so much across space but across time. The changes occurring in long-established cities that are dynamic over time, and remain in need of further transformation in order to achieve development that is culturally sustainable.

There are two principal messages, regarding priorities as I see them: the first is about enabling Māori students to be mātauranga Māori learners on campus – that is, offering a teaching and learning environment specifically for Māori students (not merely teaching students who happen to be Māori). The second is about the need for envisioning te ao Māori and mātauranga Māori in the city.

These two elements are deeply entwined in my activities at the University of Otago.

Identity in place matters

Forty years ago a large fleet of army lorries and jeeps growled through central Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland to reinforce 700 police officers in expelling protestors on ancestral Māori land in the heart of inner suburbia, less than 8km from downtown. In 1976, the Crown had announced its intention to allow development on the remaining land at Takaparawhā Bastion Point for prestigious waterfront housing. This was the last 25 hectares of Crown land at Ōrākei that the hapū had hoped would be returned.

By way of protest against this high-end development proposal, the Ōrākei Māori Action Committee occupied temporary housing for 506 days on that land – until 222 of them were arrested for “trespassing” on these ancestral lands of Ngāti Whātua, and the temporary meeting house, buildings and gardens demolished.

The politics of the situation were complicated. However, the occupation confronted New Zealanders more powerfully than ever before, with the legacy of colonial domination in the urban context.

The completely fraught, enduring, haunting history of the land around this Ōrākei, Ōkahu Bay area tells a damning story about how the city of Auckland was created, and has been reproduced ever since.

Takaparawhā, 10 minutes from downtown Auckland – the site of the 506-day occupation protesting a proposed Crown development (Image: Leonie Hayden).

I was a school child living less than 2km away from all this activity as it took place. I was cognisant of the tormenting history of tangata whenua being deliberately displaced from their turangawaewae and identity in Ōrākei as part of a century-long colonial process of dispossession and displacement. As I saw all this unfold, it seemed to me that the ongoing politics of place, and power injustices linked to the control of space, were among the most important issues you could seek to unveil in our society.

This provided a deeply challenging agenda for my time at university:

  • uncovering the importance of place in the maintenance of (cultural) identity;
  • revealing the power relations evident in the practices surrounding space;
  • then envisioning transformation that would facilitate the aspirations of decolonisation.

The subjects of geography and planning seemed two obvious starting points for that work. Amongst other things, the discipline of geography is a primary pathway to revealing and explaining such complexities of power in regard to place and identity, space and social justice. Planning, on the other hand, is a discipline that has the mandate to evaluate options for transformation in place and space – seeking practical ways forward in terms of advancing social and physical sustainability.

The failure of planning

Let me start by outlining the failure of planning. Planning systems around the world have both directly and indirectly marginalised and oppressed indigenous peoples – so it has been near impossible for indigenous groups to achieve their aspirations. The degree of indigenous involvement in planning has been widely discussed internationally in the last two decades due to the ongoing underrepresentation of indigenous groups in planning processes.

A key focus has been the failure of conventional planning processes to acknowledge, respect and understand indigenous knowledge, values and interests appropriately. Ongoing colonial practices have restricted the rights of indigenous groups to plan, protect and partake in planning, environmental management, decision-making, and policy-creation.

Colonisation has pushed aside indigenous ethics and language to such a degree that it is very difficult for indigenous groups to even imagine how best to reaffirm their traditional principles and practices in a way that will be influential in achieving outcomes. Yet indigenous groups’ responsibilities for their local environment remain, whoever ‘owns’ the land, and whatever the legal framework.

To a substantial extent, any attempts to achieve indigenous participation have been based on the notion that indigenous groups will contribute via the conventional options the Western bureaucratic system has in place – thus often rendering the permitted involvement tokenistic. Participation that requires conforming to bureaucratic practices and timetables – demanding a form of communication that may be unfamiliar and culturally dismissive – necessarily erects a barrier to genuine, respectful engagement.

Similarly, for the last century-and-a-half in Aotearoa, Māori communities have had to live with a Western system of environmental management and planning as a part of the colonial enterprise that has set aside and ignored traditional roles and practices that Māori communities have long undertaken in the environment.

This more than disappointing global and local situation provides me with ample motivation to address the fact that democratic, legal and planning systems have struggled to cater for meaningful planning in, with and by indigenous groups.

Yet, in attempting to rectify this travesty, there is a good deal of creative energy required to translate indigenous knowledge into 21st century development and planning. For example, it is clear that the directions being taken by iwi and hapū in relation to such activity are derived from longstanding traditional values that are being re-engaged for the contemporary context.

In the research I’ve been involved in we have had an explicit intention of communicating the creative potential of indigenous culture in countering the influences of colonisation and ubiquitous global practices. We aim to deliver an appreciation of indigenous understandings that can be incorporated into a re-energised willingness for meaningful relationships between Māori, resource users and decision making agencies. Critical to this is the recognition that Māori conceptualisations of the environment are vastly different to Western ones. The integrated understanding that Māori communities have of landscapes, ancestors, events, histories and practices challenges conventional, contemporary (colonial) processes in Aotearoa.

In particular, as is typical of many colonial societies, the presence of indigenous groups has long been rendered invisible in Aotearoa’s urban fabric. Moving through the built environment, you would generally have no hint of an indigenous presence manifest in the city. This is indicative of the marginalisation of indigenous voices, names, histories, landmarks, practices and symbolism in the business-as-usual practices of city planning.

Nevertheless, recent years have seen some examples of meaningful effort in planning thinking and practice to understand indigenous values, as well as innovative undertakings by indigenous communities in working towards their own urban planning aspirations.

Yes, Māori communities’ involvement in planning has long been hindered by a legacy of ignorance towards their taha wairua, mātauranga, and counter-colonial interests. However, such ignorance has been incrementally destabilised recently through political decentralisation; the introduction of a more minority conscious electoral system under MMP; and resource management and local government reforms that have advocated a more community inclusive approach to planning and increased accountability in terms of implementation of the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Future urban promise

What is being done to reinsert indigenous aspirations in (post)colonial urban environments? How do we achieve the co-creation of urban environments so that they also reflect indigenous identities? We need to re-imagine the urban landscape as rich with indigenous identity, values and principles. These values intricately link to philosophies from a long held and intimate relationship between people and place.

Māori worldviews are holistic and cyclic: all humans are interconnected to all living things and to the spiritual realm, interwoven by whakapapa (like a 3D multifaceted genealogy, structured in layers). The profound relationship Māori have with the surrounding environment provides the basis of Māori practices and is underpinned by Māori creation narratives. The Ranginui and Papatūānuku narratives explain the creation of the physical world and all things within it. These narratives emphasise the connection between Māori communities and the natural and spiritual environment by describing the world as a vast and interlinking family tree from which Māori descend.

As a result, this relationship has influenced social conduct for many generations and guided how tangata whenua interact with the environment. Papatūānuku nourishes all humankind and all other living things, and concomitantly the duty to care for the environment belongs to the Māori community. It is an obligation to act as kaitiaki and respect and care for ancestors and their environment for the generations to come.

Māori communities possess both an imbedded responsibility for, and a unique knowledge base of the natural, physical, spiritual environment.

Māori-led urban design and planning practice, is playing a significant role in reconnecting the indigenous past with ever-evolving contemporary urbanisation. In doing so, these accomplishments are articulating a somewhat lost right to the city that is now reshaping urban experience for all urban residents.

For Māori communities, the built environment is not simply about physical spaces, rather it is an expression and extension of identity. Physical surrounds are inseparable from ancestors, events, practices and context. So, Māori development activity is holistic in conception.

Let’s see what that can look like.

Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland

An inspirational model of contemporary transformation addressing such issues is now emerging on that site of historic controversy at Takaparawhau in the centre of the Auckland isthmus. A medium density development, by Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei, has been designed as a traditionally inspired environmentally and socially sustainable project that aims to attract and accommodate hapū members back onto these ancestral lands.

The masterplan development this community is undertaking is located on land that the hapū bought back from the Crown in 1996. It is an inner city suburb surrounded by some of the most upmarket waterfront housing in the city. The hapū is creating a comprehensive development based on customary values and principles that will enhance the political, social, cultural, spiritual, environmental and economic conditions of the Ngāti Whātua community.

Tumutumuwhenua watches over Ōrākei marae (Image: Hannah Peters/Getty)

This is now being facilitated by a Special Purpose Activity Zone within the Auckland District Plan (a plan change initiated by Ngāti Whātua) that facilitates tribal re-establishment on ancestral land and according to preferred tribal lifestyle. It recognises that Ngāti Whātua should be able to use its ancestral land in a manner that provides for tribal needs and aspirations.

In order to arrive at the development plan for the site, Ngāti Whātua Trust Board ran more than 30 hapū meetings plus educative sessions and workshops. These established the planning process, the conceptual ideas, the preferred living environments, and the customary principles that would guide the development.

This includes the principles of:

Kotahitanga: prioritising community facilities and amenities; including a health clinic, educational opportunities, including a kohanga reo; and natural, cultural and leisure amenities;

Wairuatanga: ensuring development orientation faces towards important landmarks and ancestors;

Manaakitanga: guaranteeing access to traditional food sources to enable generous hospitality;

Whanaungatanga: creating places that reflect identity; providing heritage markers; communally-oriented housing and gardens;

Kaitiakitanga: achieving restoration of waterways and natural areas; using passive design; creating onsite mitigation of greywater and stormwater; ensuring careful use of rainwater and solar energy; and clustering of buildings to maximise communal reserves and restoration of natural features.

Rangatiratanga: promoting self-sufficiency within the development site; creating employment prospects and home occupation opportunities.

The resulting development (which is under construction but not yet completed) includes: apartment; low rise townhouses; detached elders’ housing; shared courtyards; orchards; shared vegetable gardens; community buildings; and play space, among other amenities. Potentially, 6,000 member families will live on the site.

New financial arrangements have been put in place to ensure tribe members can return to the location (many of whom will be first-time homeowners). Members who buy the houses will lease them for 150 years, with a tribe-based corporate system set up to run the development in place of the conventional body corporate system. This is all part of a goal to reinvigorate the location as the heart of the hapū.

Such attainments are a far cry from the displacing land confiscations, evictions, protests and demolitions that litter the urban history of this very landscape. Contemporary activities on this site represent an indigenous, community-centred resurgence: defending homelands against colonialism with integrity. Achieving that within the urban setting is no mean feat.

Clustered passive design of residential buildings in Ōrākei (Image: supplied).

Ōtautahi Christchurch

Another really exciting, and internationally ground-breaking, example of progress is taking place in Ōtautahi Christchurch, particularly in response to post-earthquake reconstruction of the central city. There have been several mechanisms for change that have been used as part of the process of reinventing the city. Counter to the likelihood of the urgency of planning after a major disaster meaning that participatory practices are diminished, in certain aspects of the re-planning of Ōtautahi, participation has actually been enhanced.

Ngāi Tahu were quick to respond to the earthquakes, establishing immediate relief efforts and brokering relationships between key services and stakeholders. In addition, further to existing statutory requirements for engagement with Māori in planning processes (and the expanded obligations for roles in decision making post Ngāi Tahu’s treaty settlement), tangata whenua have been formally represented at most levels of the temporary earthquake recovery governance systems set up in the city. This has involved multiple types of engagement, including with the main tribal body; the Ngāi Tahu earthquake recovery group; the tribe’s health agency; the local mana whenua urban design agency; the main local sub-tribal community; the environmental consultancy of the six local sub-tribal groups; and the Joint Management Board partnership between Ngāi Tahu, the Recovery Agency and the City Council.

Destroyed homes in the suburb of Sumner on the outskirts of Christchurch after a 6.3 earthquake on February 22, 2011. (Fairfax Media/Getty Images)

The various Ngāi Tahu bodies have recognised the reconstruction period as an opportunity to bring about change, inclusivity and a real sense of belonging for Māori. Up until this time many Māori saw no reflection of their culture in Christchurch; the city located within their territory.

In material terms, the result has been reconstruction that better interweaves traditional language, traditional design and arts, natural heritage, and the recovery of natural resources, local narratives, and important Māori values and aspirations.

This is a significant shift. While planning administration became centralised through the recovery process, the government and the tribe both used the recovery as an opportunity to connect local government and Ngāi Tahu as partners. This is a move that has enhanced indigenous influence as compared to conventional practices in the city up until the 2010/11 earthquakes.

What is clear in the redevelopment of the city is that the growing engagement, both vertical (up and down the tiers of governance) and horizontal (via a wide variety of agencies), is very successfully weaving into the urban fabric key tribal values (identity, hospitality, autonomy, spiritual calling), as well as historic and contemporary connections with land, waterways and treasures in the city.

We are witnessing – in the Ōtautahi rebuild – development being woven into the city that is more meaningful and respectful of Ngāi Tahu lived experience, narratives and practices.

Nevertheless, the reconstruction of the city is still a highly contested process in terms of whose narratives are told or retold. And the assorted tensions reinforce the critical importance of indigenous groups being around the decision-making table across all layers of governance.

So, what we have in these two very different city examples is an illustration of a tangata whenua community creating a traditionally-founded living environment for the hapū – in Auckland, and a multifaceted approach to giving voice and visibility to Māori presence across the city of Christchurch. We see an innovative interweaving of traditional and contemporary urban design. We see a reclaiming of Māori spatial narratives in the city. We can observe the re-establishing of the cultural presence of Māori in the city in two distinct ways.

Will non-indigenous citizens notice the difference? They may recognise the difference in the process that is being used for governance and decision-making in the city. They may notice the difference in the principles and values that are driving some development in the city. They may appreciate the difference in the symbolism around the city – some overt art and sculpture is visible to all. But the narratives behind certain designs and landscaping may be subtle enough to remain known only to some.

Does that matter? Not all processes and outcomes need to be understood by everyone. But as an indigenous group, being able to recognise your identity in the city is critical: that is, being able to be yourself and see yourself in the city you inhabit.

Crucially though, such indigenous transformation also has implications for dominant society, which itself needs to be informed, and even reformed, by the challenges emerging from the indigenous world.

Tū cities – optimism/perseverance/people (to do the task)

Back to the idea of ‘tū’ cities – cities across time: the colonial city that was, and the reclaimed city that is becoming.

The examples I’ve highlighted demonstrate the tremendous potential for interlacing traditional and present-day practices of urbanisation: re-establishing the cultural imperative and presence of indigenous groups in cities, and concomitantly improving the prospects for more socially and culturally sustainable urban environments. Transforming the city. Reinventing the city. Reclaiming the city of many histories (not just some groups’ histories) over time.

We see that the contemporary approach by Māori communities to planning and development is not unrehearsed; rather development is being considered against a long legacy of ‘constitutional’ struggles and a sustained adherence to traditional values and practices.

The notion that Māori are partners in decision-making about the natural and physical environment is key to understanding iwi and hapū approaches that have been developed. The fact that Māori were dispossessed of ‘ownership’ of practically all land has not obviated their sense of responsibility for decisions that affect land and water in their localities… in the cities within their rohe.

In this, Māori are at a point that is similar to many other indigenous peoples. Internationally, decades of effort have gone into securing recognition, and then in some cases, attempting to shift beyond that to self-determination through collective, self-affirmation. For instance, strategies adopted by a number of indigenous activist first nations in Canada are moving past a focus on their position in relation to the colonial-state and instead towards fashioning their own decolonising “practices of freedom”. That is, not being trapped in an endless seeking of recognition and empowerment from the state, rather … being liberated by “their own transformative praxis”.

The challenge is to be a provocative and constructive contributor to the potential implementation of an interrupted, re-envisaged urbanity – an urbanity that can embrace diversity courtesy of genuine plurality in its realisation.

Professor Michelle Thompson-Fawcett lecturing at the University of Otago (Image: supplied).

So, at the core of my research is the belief in decolonisation: making sense of indigenous understandings; furthering indigenous aspirations; while also seeking to change priorities held in the seats of power.

I have transformative hopes. I have hope that decision-makers will grow in their willingness to learn and cherish other ways of knowing; will seek to understand other ways of knowing. I have hope that decision makers will be involved in the capacity building of dominant society to support and understand indigenous aspirations for cities, landscapes and environments. I have hope that decision makers will be involved in redressing current power imbalances and developing mechanisms that are meaningful for genuine partnership. I have hope that we will embrace indigenous cultural and environmental knowledges in order to shift from a privileging of the majority to a co-existence of self-determining peoples.

And to help achieve these hopes over the long-haul, as an institution here in Otago we need to grow graduates who are competent in Māori sciences and understandings so they can lead us in change. We need to have a diversity of academic staff, who are able to teach beyond western science – to other ways of knowing. Staff who can inspire genuine and meaningful Māori contributions to society from our “Māori graduates”, not solely educate students – some of whom might happen to be Māori – in western paradigms.

Join us and help make
independent journalism happen!
Find Out More

An ethic of “locatedness” is critical to learning and working outcomes in the Aotearoa context. That involves learning and research initiatives that reassert the potency and integrity of indigenous philosophies and actions. That involves considering how we might honour variation (indigeneity) through our teaching and investigative practices. In our university, we need to foster learning environments where indigenous knowledge, culture and values are recognised as normal and legitimate; where being indigenous – being Māori – is normal. It’s about creating space within all our university disciplines for distinctive indigenous learning and intellectualism.

The trajectory of our ambitions at Otago is positive; the implementation needs to catch up to move us towards whakawhanaketanga toitū.

This lecture was originally presented in October 2018. 

This content was created in paid partnership with the University of Otago. Learn more about our partnerships here


The University of Otago is a vibrant contributor to Māori development and the realisation of Māori aspirations, through our Māori Strategic Framework and world-class researchers and teachers.


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.