Transportation planner, Corrigan Millar (Ngāti Kahungunu) believes the design of urban spaces can have an important impact on our well-being and that urban spaces in Aotearoa could be a lot more inspiring, environmentally friendly, and even more climate resilient if mana whenua were involved in the early stages of design.

 Corrigan studied at the University of Otago where he recently completed his Masters of Urban Planning under the supervision of Matakitenga lead researcher, Professor Michelle Thompson-Fawcett. He says Ōtepoti with its colonial facades was the perfect place to observe how Māori heritage had been left out of urban design. He says today’s planners are attempting to incorporate Te Ao Māori into new design concepts for the city and thatthe more successful projects bring mana whenua to the table from the very start.

 Urban spaces can tell us a lot about the culture of people who use the spaces, as well as being a reflection of the designer’s attitudes to the community. Corrigan says it is vital that planning professionals understand the need for Māori identity to be reflected in urban spaces, particularly because 85% of Māori live in urban areas.

 “Urban spaces in New Zealand need to reflect more than just one culture. Places and spaces can boost or inhibit our well-being, and Māori need to feel as much at home in their urban spaces as any other culture using these spaces,” he says.

 Corrigan’s thesis examined the barriers hindering design professionals in the practice of ‘indigenising’ urban spaces. He interviewed a range of people including city planners, architects and mana whenua, and says the results showed  a lack of education about Te Ao Māori as well as  ignorance about the existence of Māori worldviews.

 He says his research showed many planning professionals do not feel confident to engage with mana whenua and their education meant some lacked an understanding of why it is important. “I talked to a planner who immigrated to New Zealand. This person was completely unaware of Māori culture and was using a template system from a university in the United Kingdom to design spaces. The planner was unaware of how inappropriate it was to come to New Zealand with an overseas mentality and expect to impose this on top of an existing culture.”

 He says designing with Te Ao Māori values often means you need to approach the process with a holistic mindset and not be wedded to particular outcomes and timelines. “However, my case studies showed that when Te Ao Māori was acknowledged at the very beginning of a project, it ran more smoothly and allowed the design professionals to gain extremely valuable insights.”

 One example of the usefulness of historic Māori knowledge came when Corrin was advised by mana whenua about how water ran off specific hills in a particular way after heavy rain. “I was told to go have a look at the flooding of the streets near these hills, and after I did this, a light switched on for me. I realised that roading designers and urban planners should have had this knowledge before the road was designed. That’s when I realised mana whenua have untapped knowledge that goes back centuries and we as design professionals need to tap into this and bring them into our projects right from the beginning.”

 So, what does it mean to indigenise a space and how can it be done? For Corrigan it means acknowledging Indigenous and cultural connections to the land, as well as building respectful and authentic relationships with mana whenua. 

 Corrigan’s thesis looked at two Dunedin case studies: the George Street redevelopment, and Te Rangihīroa student hall of residence.

Both developments were ultimately successful, however, George Street got off to a better start because mana whenua were brought in from the outset. Corrigan says this was helped  by Dunedin City Council updating its District Plan to recognize Te Ao Māori as a fundamental value. George Street has had a complete transformation and now it flourishes with native plantings that reflect the plant and insect life that once were there historically. Walking, sitting, and interacting with people have been made easier, and these spaces have replaced the busy, two-lane road that once existed. 

 Corrigan is now working in New Plymouth as a transport planner for BECA Consultants and he says he uses the knowledge gained from his thesis every day in his mahi. “Multi-disciplinary teams work on a lot of our projects, and what I learnt during my thesis was invaluable for my work now. My thesis taught me how to talk with, rather than talk to, mana whenua.  I am now in a spot where I have the skills to do this, and I get to help other people in the office form relationships with mana whenua.”

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