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
Indigenous settlements may first be considered as divisible into two broad types: discrete bounded settlements and dispersed urban housing across towns and cities.
There are three types of discrete bounded settlements:-
- Discrete settlements geographically separate from other centres.
- Discrete urban settlements and town camps within or on the outskirts of an urban or rural centre.
- Outlying discrete settlements dependant on a larger centre for infrastructure or services, eg. outstations, homelands, and pastoral settlements.
There are two broad types of Indigenous dispersed settlement in urban townships.
- Dispersed Indigenous housing and communal facilities in a capital city or major regional centre.
- Dispersed Indigenous housing and communal facilities in rural centres including those with a majority Indigenous population.
Figures 6 and 7 show the spatial distribution of these settlements across Australia. These various settlement types will be discussed in turn.
Figure 6. Distribution and relative size of discrete bounded settlements.
Source: ABS (2000)
Figure 7. Distribution of Indigenous housing organisations, indicating both dispersed settlements in urban / rural centres and the larger discrete settlements
Source: ABS (2000)
(i) Discrete Settlements
Discrete Settlements which are geographically separate or bounded from other centres, are commonly perceived to be the most common form of Indigenous settlement, but in fact they account for less than one third of the total Indigenous population. (This type of Indigenous settlement is commonly referred to as 'communities' in the literature, but see previous note on the inadequacy of this term.)
In the 1999 Community Housing and Infrastructure Needs Survey (CHINS), 1,291 discrete Indigenous settlements were identified throughout Australia with a total population of almost 110,000. (See map in Figure 6). The settlements as identified in the CHINS survey are actually a mixture of the three types of discrete settlements as defined above. The majority of discrete settlements recorded were relatively small in population and about 73% had a population of less than 50 people (ABS 1999:1). A large proportion of these small settlements are outstations as discussed further below. Settlements with a reported population of 200 or more accounted for only 12% of the total number of discrete settlements, but these settlements accounted for 69% of all people living in discrete settlements. (ABS 2000:11, Cat. No. 4710.0.)
A small number of discrete settlements are quite large in population. There are eight discrete settlements with a population greater than 1000 which are classified by the ABS as urban centres. They are located in Queensland and the Northern Territory. In decreasing size these settlements are Palm Island, Yarrabah, Galiwin'ku, Maningrida, Port Keats, Cherbourg, Nguiu and Woorabinda.
In the same survey, 179 discrete settlements were identified with no permanent dwellings (ABS 2000:1). Many of these settlements would be independent outstations with self-built dwellings, constructed from within the limited economic resources of the outstation groups. The inhabitants would have occupied tents, sheds, caravans or traditional shelters or humpies. Some would have been sleeping in the open, sheltered by windbreaks and hearths.
The survey also found that the majority of discrete settlements are remote. This characteristic can be measured by the difficulty of transport access to such places. Leaving aside those settlements that must be normally accessed by plane or boat, the most frequent travel time by motor vehicle from the nearest conventional town, was between one and four hours for these settlements, with a significant proportion taking over five hours (ABS 2000:22). In many cases, road access is interrupted or regularly cut by floods (and sometimes bushfires). The reliance on air access, for the supply of perishable goods and the evacuation of persons requiring hospitalisation is critical.
The comparative stability of the Indigenous population in such remote (and often arid) parts of Australia can be largely ascribed to their traditional attachment to territorial lands and the emotional security of maintaining proximity to such.
Considering the various States and Territories in 1999, the Northern Territory had most of its Indigenous people living in discrete settlements and in fact the cost of servicing these settlements has been calculated to represent 45% of the total national cost of servicing Indigenous discrete settlements. In Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia, a third to a quarter of the Indigenous populations resided in discrete settlements. In NSW the proportion was only a tenth, whereas there were only a few discrete settlements to be found in Victoria and Tasmania. (Ove Arup and Partners 1999:25, 26.).
Discrete settlements are often unique from other Indigenous settlement types in that many have local government status either formally enacted through State or Territory legislation (as in Queensland and the Northern Territory) or informally through the receipt of operational funding for local government type functions (as in South Australia and Western Australia). These settlements receive variable support from government agencies and are politically faced with ensuring the provision of basic services such as administration, education, health clinics, housing, local roads and drainage, communication and postal services, waste disposal and the supply of water and electricity. The extent to which governments provide direct services or financial support for these services varies from place to place and is the subject of a regular housing and infrastructure needs analysis by ATSIC (eg. see ABS 2000, Cat. No. 4710.0).
It is, however, important to stress that not all discrete settlements have local government status. Indeed the conferring of local government status by State Governments often blurs the definition of 'communities' or discrete settlements. For example, it is widely held in Queensland that there are 34 'DOGIT communities', but in fact there are 34 discrete settlements with local government status, and up to ten more discrete settlements without local government status. A similar situation exists in South Australia.
Implementing local by-laws and other decision-making in these discrete settlements is often undertaken by Indigenous Councils. This facilitates a freedom of Indigenous cultural expression in most cases. Lifestyle practices in such discrete settlements are thus often culturally distinct and may involve a range of customary kinship and religious practices as well as traditional domiciliary behaviours. For example, ABS reported on the visitation of relatives and extended kin for cultural or ceremonial reasons, which highlights not only the tendency for marked mobility amongst Indigenous people, but also the customary obligations to share accommodation and sustenance with kin. Thus:
"Community infrastructure often needs to cater for visitors, in addition to the community's usual population. Many discrete communities reported population increases due to visitors staying in the community for two weeks or more. Of communities with a reported population of 50 or more, 79% reported population increases of this kind in the 12 months prior to the survey, with 25% of these communities reporting increases of a size similar to, or greater than, their usual population. The most common reasons reported for these visitors were cultural or ceremonial reasons (72% of communities experiencing visitors) and visiting during holiday periods (41%)." (ABS 1999:12.)
Large discrete Indigenous settlements usually have a history of imposed institutions, and were established either as missions or government settlements. In many cases several different language groups were relocated to the one settlement. Whilst there is always something of a 'community-of-interest' which exists at any discrete settlement level, it should not be assumed that Indigenous settlements are coherent socially organised communities. Large discrete Indigenous settlements are characterised by a dynamic social structure consisting of multiple and overlapping groupings including households, families, extended families, clans and language groups. If we think of 'community' as a group in a regular social network with close affiliations and a common identity, then we may find several different 'communities' within the one Indigenous settlement. Likewise, several different settlements may be utilised by one such community.
(ii) Discrete Urban Settlements
Discrete urban settlements usually comprise an enclave or precinct within a rural town or regional city. They have usually originated as a 'fringe settlement', town camp, ration depot or mission on the periphery of a town, with the land later becoming dedicated for Indigenous use, and administered by a government welfare department. For over 50 or more years, the town may have grown and expanded to surround such enclaves. Discrete urban settlements can either occur as a multiple occupancy development over a large block of land or as a conglomerate of residential housing blocks.
In the contemporary context, the provision of settlement services (water, electricity, roads, garbage collection etc) may be shared by an Indigenous community organization and the local authority, reflecting this administrative history. Urban settlements, however, have limited powers of self governance and are required by stature to conform to the planning schemes, by-laws and other legislation enforced by the Shire or Town Council.
In the same 1999 CHINS survey cited above, 81 discrete urban settlements were identified in this category (ABS 1999:11). However the current authors are of the view (from their own field observations) that a significant proportion of small discrete settlements have slipped through these various national surveys due to their inconspicuous size in urban centres and their failure to register in Commonwealth funding programmes.
Perhaps the most publicized example of a discrete urban settlement and community within an urban metropolis is 'The Block' in Redfern, Sydney. (La Perouse is a second well known discrete settlement in Sydney.) Other known examples of Australian cities or rural centres having a number of discrete Indigenous settlements within their boundaries include Mt Isa, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine, Halls Creek, and Port Hedland. Such cities are often regional centres with each discrete settlement being originally established by a different 'tribal, factional or family group from a part of the surrounding region. In some cases the housing and services in these discrete settlements are funded by the State Government and in others, by the Commonwealth (through ATSIC). They are usually administered by an incorporated Indigenous body.
For example, in the 1990s Alice Springs had 19 discrete town camps occupied by up to 1300 Indigenous people, originally established by members of nine language groups (or tribal groups) (Figure 8). The social composition of these Town Camps has transformed incrementally as more minority groups have arrived and the original residents of the respective camps have inter-married.
Figure 8. A pattern of discrete urban Indigenous settlements - 19 Town Camps in Alice Springs
Source: (adapted from Memmott 1994.)
These town camps in Alice Springs initially began over the last four decades as 'fringe camps' with humpies and other self built improvements. Through the services of a single Indigenous resource agency, they have been gradually improved with housing, infrastructure and landscaping. The architectural environment of the town camps, although employing conventional technology, has been designed and managed in a culturally distinct manner. While this has been taking place, the town itself has expanded and grown around or beside many of these camps, absorbing them into the urban fabric. Despite this, the residents maintain many traditional cultural beliefs and behaviours which contrast with the suburban mainstream. (Memmott 1994.) Accordingly, many discrete urban settlements clearly become separate Indigenous domains within non-indigenous towns.
(iii) Outlying Discrete Settlements
Outstations or homelands are small family-based settlements often located on traditional Indigenous countries, 'estates' or 'homelands'. They are generally decentralised settlements associated with a spiritual and territorial ideology of a "return to country' from a larger Indigenous settlement. The residents retain close associations with the 'parent' settlement and there are often frequent movements of people between town and the outstation (see Figure 9).
Outstations are inherently remote, and can be located in some of the most isolated areas of Australia. They present unique problems with servicing, especially with respect to access and water supply, giving rise to a variety of appropriate technology solutions (see Figure 10). Outstation occupancy levels fluctuate with seasonal access and the availability of transport and other resources. Whilst not all outstations survive, some grow to become independent settlements in their own right. (Altman et al 1998.)
A similar type of settlement in remote areas of Australia is the pastoral station, an increasing number of which have come into Indigenous ownership over the last two decades as purchases of such have been made by government funded Indigenous agencies (eg. the Indigenous Land Corporation). Many Indigenous people have worked on these pastoral properties in the past, and are widely credited for their important labour contribution in establishing successful pastoral enterprises across Australia over two centuries. Whilst similar to outstations in terms of location and service needs, the associated land use is often more economically oriented, and less traditionally based.
(iv) Dispersed Settlement in Urban Centres
With the exception of the urban enclaves described above, a high proportion of the Indigenous population (46%) live in housing dispersed through capital cities and major regional centres. An urban centre is defined here as a settlement with an Indigenous population of greater than 1000 people, but with a Total population of not less than 5000. The first criteria selects only those urban centres with a significant Indigenous population. The second criteria is necessary to remove any overlap with the other settlement types within the proposed typology. There are 39 such urban centres in Australia. (Moran 2001.)
The Indigenous housing in these centres is a mixture of community, public and private rental as well as home-owner housing. Past public rental housing policies have generally ensured that Indigenous housing is scattered across urban areas in the larger centres. Nevertheless there is a strong correlation between the location of Indigenous housing and the suburbs of low socio-economic status (Taylor 1993a, 1993b, Hunter 1996).
Studies conducted by Gale (1972), Gale and Wundersitz (1982) and Memmott (1991:Ch.12) have indicated a propensity for Indigenous families to locate their housing in close proximity to kin and family whether it be in urban rural or urban metropolitan centres. This may take several years of patiently relocating from one rental housing unit to another.
In addition to kinship links between households within urban areas, close links are also maintained with certain Indigenous settlements outside of the city. There is considerable ongoing mobility between locales, even for those born in the city. In an analysis of the 1981/86 census data, Gray (1989) found the high level of in-migration into urban areas to be counterbalanced by a high level of out-migration.
Another study of urban centres (Hunter 1996), revealed that the extent of residential segregation for Indigenous people is higher than for immigrants. ('Residential segregation' means the tendency for the members of a social group to remain segregated together in certain suburbs or residential areas.) Furthermore, the level of residential segregation is the same for Indigenous people regardless of the socio-economic status, contrary to the trend observed amongst immigrants. Wealthy immigrants are therefore much more likely to live in wealthy suburbs than wealthy Indigenous people. There are probably a number of factors that combine to explain this. There are known institutional barriers which limit access for Indigenous people to the private rental market despite their income levels. There are also internal ties within Indigenous social networks and societies which result in a propensity for Indigenous people to choose to remain close to kin.
(v) Dispersed Residence in Rural Centres
Similar to urban centres, a high proportion of Indigenous people live in smaller rural towns within mainstream local government authorities. Many of these people are represented through an Indigenous Housing Organisation or other incorporated Indigenous body. Housing in these centres is mostly rental housing administered either through an Indigenous Housing Organisation (usually sponsored by ATSIC) or a state government housing authority. There is also an increasing number of households that have either purchased or are in the process of buying their own home.
In an analysis of 1996 Census data, Moran (2001) has demonstrated that there are only 35 towns in Australia where the Indigenous population is in the range of 30-70% of the total. These towns represent only 2% of the total number of "Urban Centres and Localities" recorded in the census. It is evident that the vast majority of the Indigenous population of Australia lives in two extreme situations; either in the overwhelming majority as found in discrete Indigenous settlements, or in the overwhelmed minority of a larger non-Indigenous centre.
The 35 towns in between these two extremes are relatively unique. The Indigenous population of these towns would be in sufficient number to seek and gain representation on the local government council, and even have one of their people gain the position of Mayor. (This has occurred in the town of Thursday Island in the Torres Strait where two-thirds of the population is Indigenous). For about one-third of these 35 settlements, there is a majority Indigenous population which suggests that they be considered as discrete Indigenous settlements.
The presence of the Indigenous populations is these townships would be clearly evident and felt to the extent of challenging non-Indigenous social-spatial characteristics of the town living environment. Referring to such rural towns in Queensland, Memmott (1991) comments that Indigenous people have maintained a social distance and a distinct social character, either through the forces of discrimination, or because of their substantial numbers in relation to the non-Indigenous population. He suggests that effective processes of assimilation have only occurred in the larger regional and urban centres where the non-Indigenous population is in the overwhelming majority.