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



This report was prepared by Dr Paul Memmott and Mark Moran of the Aboriginal Environments Research Centre, University of Queensland. The views it contains are not necessarily those of the Commonwealth, State or Territory Governments. The Commonwealth, which includes the Australian State of the Environment Committee, does not accept responsibility in respect of any information or advice given in relation to or as a consequence of anything contained herein. The copyright for the use of the images has been granted to the authors.


When Australia was initially colonized, Indigenous people were distributed over most of the continent and its surrounding islands. Colonization and successive governments brought widespread population decimation, displacement from land, forced migrations, concentration into specially established reserves, and imposed institutional changes upon Indigenous peoples. Despite this history of forced colonization and assimilation, Indigenous Australians today remain distributed across much of the continent and residing in various types of settlements in a very different way from non-indigenous Australians. Their societies display quite distinct demography and settlement characteristics. From remote discrete settlements to urban enclaves within the capital cities, Indigenous Australians continue to preserve cultural autonomy and a degree of separatism which is manifest in the 'where-and-how' they live.

This paper provides a national overview of the parallel settlement system which exists across Indigenous Australia. Its aim is to provide a context for the physical planning of Indigenous settlements, one that is cognisant of the range of culturally distinct factors that contribute to the unique character of such settlements. The methodology includes an analysis of census data and a review of existing literature with support from examples and anecdotal evidence from the authors' professional experiences. Shortcomings in the existing research and data on Indigenous settlements are noted, and recommendations are made for further research.

No attempt is made in this paper to examine the traditional systems of settlement employed in pre-contact Aboriginal Australia. (The reader is referred to Memmott 1990B for an introduction to this.) Instead, the paper will commence with an overview of the literature on more contemporary Aboriginal settlements in the post-1970 era. This literature analysis will follow an established and implicit classification of Indigenous settlement types in the literature, viz a division into mission settlements, town camps, pastoral settlements, government settlements, outstations, and urban settlements. However later in this paper the authors will offer a revised taxonomy that is considered more useful in addressing the physical design of settlements; one which involves a division into 'discrete bounded settlements' and 'dispersed settlement in urban townships'. These two broad types are made up of a number of sub-types which are each described.

A number of the more outstanding physical and cultural properties of these settlements are examined viz population mobility, socio-spatial patterns and Indigenous lifestyles, as well as cultural-geographic regions. This last type of unit broadens the analysis into a consideration of Indigenous settlements at a regional scale taking into account cultural links and mobility between settlements as factors providing regional definition. An alternate regional analysis then follows which looks at the economic and historical explanations underlying the variable patterns or configurations of Indigenous settlement types across certain regions of Australia. The last part of this paper comprises an overview of Indigenous settlement liveability and quality of lifestyle, highlighting a range of current problems and future issues.

It should be noted that the term 'community' is generally avoided in this analysis as a descriptor or synonym for 'settlement'. Despite its wide usage in the literature on Indigenous Australia (eg. in documents produced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC)), the term does not necessarily imply political unity or social cohesion as its meaning suggests. The internal social structures of some so-called 'communities' are characterized by political divisiveness and factionalism. The current authors thus feel it to be inappropriate to use the term 'community' to designate a category of settlement type.

1 Parts of this paper were originally written as a contribution to the "Australian State of the Environment Report 2001" (Simson et al 2000).