One of the outcomes from the Indigenous Environment Forum held in 2005 at QUT’s School of Design was the recent travel of a group of five architects and researchers to the isolated community of Palm Island. Their intention was to help develop a long-term town planning concept for the community, apply a reality check on environmental health living conditions on the island, and assess, the community’s planning needs.
Great Palm Island is one of Australia’s largest Indigenous communities and is only a short flight off the Townsville coast. People on the island live in public dwellings rented from the community organisation and supplied by the state government. Most of the existing housing stock on the island is old and dysfunctional and in need of renewal: frequently, windows are broken, roofs are leaking and plumbing is inadequate. But even more striking is the fact that the community averages ten persons per house.
There are no reliable figures available on the exact population of Palm Island, since many residents are forced to move to Townsville to find employment. However, the estimated population of around 2,500 Indigenous people is squeezed into 280 houses, which mainly have three or four overcrowded bedrooms. The level of dissatisfaction about such inadequate housing is high – occupants feel that the dwellings do not satisfy the needs of the household. Around a third of the population is younger than twelve years of age and a strong population growth is forecast until 2010. The unemployment rate on the island is said to be above 90 per cent, double of the unemployment rate for all Indigenous Australians.
Historically, Palm Island was a place where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were sent as a form of punishment. The government relocated Indigenous people from over sixty different tribes across Queensland, each with its own language, to the island from 1918 onwards. As such, Palm Island is a mixture of Aboriginal people, languages, traditions and customs. A moral obligation exists for governments to supply decent housing to these people yet, despite decades of housing funding, there is still a waiting list of around 300 for housing units. Palm Island’s council is responsible for administering its public housing, roads and education, which in other communities is usually a State government responsibility. The council doesn’t have the necessary resources and support to meet this responsibility and has, in that sense, been set up to fail.
A complex situation
It’s a complex situation, and basic questions of economic empowerment, issues of self-governance, land tenure, property management and the creation of an Aboriginal housing market are unanswered. At the moment there are no opportunities on the island for employment or long-term economic independence. Nor is there a long-term master plan for sustainable development of Palm Island that takes its special topographical conditions, tropical climate and lifestyle of its residents into consideration. Decisions on housing are taken in far-away Brisbane and post-occupancy evaluation is almost never done. Currently only four new houses are built under the government’s program. This number needs to be significantly increased, and the refurbishment of existing housing as well as a major infrastructure upgrade needs attention. The Queensland government also needs to provide Indigenous residents with better design options for new houses. For example, climate-responsive houses would be more sustainable than current housing, and could be built without any additional cost. The current approach to housing is one of import substitution – where both design and cost are imported. This culturally inappropriate housing denies local engagement with, and development of, a sense of ownership and pride in the built environment of the community.
If design principles for building in the tropics are applied, housing typologies would offer living areas facing north with a generous verandah, shaded by wide roof eaves and overlooking a tropical garden, with shading trees planted on the western side of the lot. In these typologies there is no need for air-conditioned houses. If we further reassess the way a building might relate to Aboriginal culture and how architecture might be derived from the specific needs of Indigenous people, we will recall the tradition of personal shelters in Aboriginal architecture, which strongly expresses the ‘spirit of the place’. However, the state government’s current housing solutions are far removed from this: houses are simply thrown on the island, most of the time disrespectful of any orientation or context. Large covered decks for outdoor life are frequently forgotten, houses face towards hills, away from the sun and the view. A new approach to housing needs to be investigated and tested so that housing becomes a community inspired solution rather than a government convenience.
At present, residents do not even have access to tools or building materials; there are no retail outlets such as a hardware shop where residents can buy building materials to repair houses; no workshops to practise craftsmanship; no adequate sports facilities for the youth; no modern waste disposal plant; no landscaping; no barbeque facilities for families; no public toilets or reasonable public space; no decent public gathering spaces; no community garden; and no decent townscape. And as long as important buildings such as the council building, the bank and the post office are nothing more than run-down sheds, and there is no library, how can civic pride be nurtured? It is surprising that the treatment of Aboriginal people on the island has not attracted international censure as the history of Palm Island is a raw example of the failings of ‘first world’ government policy in respect of Indigenous people.
The Queensland Government and the community leaders on Palm Island need to be the agents of change and real progress, to give hope to the population and give them a chance at future economic development.