Indigenous Settlements of Australia
Australia: State of the Environment Second Technical Paper Series (Human Settlements), Series 2
Dr Paul Memmott and Mark Moran
Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 642 54790 4
The common unit or 'building block' of Indigenous settlements is houses, and improvements to environmental health typically concentrate on housing and infrastructure. The predominant town plan for Indigenous settlements is similar to that found in a non-indigenous country town, with rows of three bedroom houses on quarter acre sub-division blocks. Houses are closely spaced on the premise of accommodating nuclear families and to improve the economy of delivering infrastructure services, including water, sewerage, drainage and power.
Houses do not, however, necessarily correlate with family units in a clear one-to-one relation in Indigenous societies. In contrast to the national trend of an increased proportion of households being made up of single persons and childless couples (KPMG 2000), Indigenous households tend to be larger and complex, often made up a number of family sub-groups.
"In the 1996 Census, Indigenous households were larger on average (3.7 people) than other households (2.7 people), and were more likely to be crowded. Among households which provided information on the number of bedrooms in their dwelling, 7.5% of Indigenous households recorded having more than two persons per bedroom (or in a bedsitter), compared with only 0.8% of other households. Of all households in Australia with more than two people per bedroom, about one in eight (12.1%) were Indigenous, even though Indigenous households comprised only 1.6% of all Australian households." (ABS 1999:22, Cat. No. 4704.0.)
If one examines the size of Indigenous households in the northern regions of Australia, one finds an average number in the order of five or six or more persons (ABS 1997:26, Cat. No. 4155.0). For example:-
"In 1996, 30.4% of Queensland Indigenous households had 5 or more people living in them compared to 11.5% of non-indigenous households. Conversely, the proportion of Queensland Indigenous persons living alone (12%) was half the proportion of non-indigenous persons who lived alone (23%)" (Qld DATSIPAD 1999:17.)
These larger Indigenous households are explained partly by the fact that in traditionally oriented Indigenous societies, large households often comprise a number of sub-units that reside together, based on kinship norms. Such a sub-unit would be considered a 'family unit' in the mainstream Australian society. In some cases multiple Indigenous families are residing together because of a shortage of housing and are experiencing crowding. However in other cases they may choose to reside in such large household groupings, in keeping with their traditions.
Apart from raw statistical data, there is a general lack of research on the social characteristics and types of Indigenous households. In traditional camps, households could usually be divided into nuclear families, single men's and single women's groups. In many contemporary Indigenous settlements these types of households continue and more complex ones have emerged due to cultural change in domestic economics and social authority structures. In many cases we find several customary family units occupying a single house, and often residing in one bedroom each.
In a recent survey of a limited sample of Aboriginal houses across the Northern Territory (Memmott et al 2000), the average number of permanent residents per house was 8.9, and per bedroom 3.2 across the sample. These averages, in reality, are even higher at a number of times during the year due to the presence of visitors. Household sizes of 6 to 12 people were common, and much larger households were regularly encountered in the survey (up to 20 members). Thus, in these large households, it is normal to find each bedroom occupied by a family unit itself, including either a couple with infants, a single parent with child, or a group of single men or single women, or a grandparent with several infants or teenagers, as well as conventional nuclear families (see Figure 5). It should not be assumed that this is a state of crowding as these may be normal family sub-units in extended families. (Note, by definition a state of 'crowding' requires there to be perceived stress by those experiencing it - see Memmott 1991:258-261 for amplification on this subject.)
Figure 5. A house built in the Miwatj Region (Northern Territory) during 1998-99 and designed to accommodate a complex Indigenous household. The household genealogy and floor plan show the sleeping locations of household sub-units.
Source: (From Memmott, Long et al 2000.)
A single Indigenous house may thus be doing the job of three or more houses as we might conceive their use in mainstream society, ie. occupied by, not 2.7 persons (the current national average household size) but by double or up to three times this number. Unfortunately this circumstance is often overlooked by funding agencies and architectural designers in the Indigenous housing sector, who may continue to provide houses to Indigenous people designed for relatively small nuclear families.
Differences in the distribution and spatial configuration of Indigenous households (and families) can be used to generate a taxonomy of settlement types and associated lifestyles which is presented in the following section.