Can art and design decolonise cities?

There is a global movement to restructure cities, putting health and sustainability at the centre of policies that guide the built environment. By putting people and global health back at the centre of planning, we can turn the tide of development away from a web of disease and environmental degradation towards a healthy and sustainable city for all.

It is important to create “healthy urban planners” who know the importance of the built environment and its impact on health.

The practice of urban planning has not changed since the colonial invasions, creating structures and regulations that separated settlers from local populations (e.g. zoning laws). These laws have perpetuated inequality and injustice among local populations, and continue to torment cities around the world.

Colonial planning systems have also changed human-land relations, moving away from collective management to adverse (and often violent) land ownership.

And how can we decolonize urban planning? This is where we start to create interdisciplinary spaces that allow participants to make a deep search. And here is the point where we can start to use art and design on our favor. The presence of certain installations allows us to see the culture reflected in urban environments and buildings, often bringing memories of exclusion or belonging.

In New Zealand, The marae is a building made from intricate woodcarvings that represent iwi (tribe), hapū (sub tribe) and whānau (family). Being situated within the building designed by Te Arawa master carver Dr Lyonel Grant asserted the power of Māori design and any lingering assumptions that architecture is a practice which began in the global north. Instead we were surrounded by hand carved imagery representing the history of Tāmaki Makaurau in a striking triangular building. Māori people see their marae as tūrangawaewae, a place to stand and belong. This starting point empowered the local iwi and fundamentally repositioned how we conceptualised space and place, dissociating ourselves from the colonial buildings and urban structures which typify colonised Western cities (paragraph extracted from an article originally published by Art Guide in 2018).

Site visit to Onekiritea (Hobsonville Point), Auckland. Photo by Timmah Ball.

The process of decolonisation is long, with many questions, including the interests of private and public companies, as well as a profound lack of knowledge rooted for centuries in our society. A complex process, that won’t be easy, but must be done.

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