Article | Future Cities, Intelligent Investment

Designing with Country: Why leading developers are integrating it into their projects

Exploring the true potential and vital considerations of integrating Indigenous voices in commercial spaces.

June 30, 2023

The images shows an office block building in Perth, Western Australia

It was only a decade ago that the notion of sitting down with a community group to discuss the integration of Indigenous voices into commercial spaces would be a rarity.  

Times are changing though, and the concept of Designing with Country is fast becoming a vital strategic component of today’s design and development process. It’s a movement which is both progressive and delicate, while placed at the forefront of some of Australia’s most prominent property developers today. The crucial question is: why?  

CBRE spoke with Troy Casey, Director of Blaklash; Cliff Winby, Vice President, Developments, at Brookfield Properties; Vy Nguyen, Executive Director Precinct Development, Property and Development NSW; and Justin Woodcock, CBRE’s National Director, Development & Infrastructure, Australia, to uncover the intricacies, benefits and challenges of Designing with Country.  

Defining success in Designing with Country 

Designing with Country in the property landscape entails the development of projects that have been integrated with Indigenous voices at the core. Its goal is to bring a deeper cultural connection between the land, the development and its people. More specifically, it aims to restore the balance between Indigenous, colonial and migrant histories through bold and sustainable design. 

The key to this concept? Intricate insight and guidance provided by First Nations communities as part of the greater design and development process.  

“It’s a new space and so many communities are still trying to understand what this means for them, their people, and what can actually be achieved,” explains Troy Casey, whose Aboriginal design agency specialises in First Nations Placemaking. 

“There has been a very sudden boom in the demand for this kind of input from our communities, with so many varied projects with a wide range of complexities, that sometimes I’m not sure if community always experience the benefits of their input on the projects. 

“Holistically though, I do think that Designing with Country provides a critical avenue for our people to gain agency over the shaping of Country, the continuation of culture, and a way to lift up and empower their communities. It just has to be done right.” 

For Brookfield Properties’ Cliff Winby, success in Designing with Country is about creating a place that everybody feels welcome to and is comfortable being in. 

“When it’s approached in the right way you get a more authentic interpretation of the place because you’re paying attention not just to contemporary heritage but to the full history of the site and responding to its unique character,” says Winby. 

In a 2022 Building Talks podcast exploring the convergence of Indigenous design and the built environment, Aboriginal advocate, academic and architect, Jefa Greenaway, provided his thoughts on the trajectory of Designing with Country. 

“Even in major metropolises like Melbourne and Sydney there are still remnants of that relationality to country, and as I often say, you can concrete over country, but country still remains, the story still remains,” he said. 

Greenaway also explained how he sees architecture as a means of cultural expression in order to make the invisible visible by drawing on the wisdom and knowledge that comes with 67,000 years of Indigenous history. One of his roles has been to integrate Indigenous elements into the design degree at the University of Melbourne, drawing on ndigenous knowledge and perspectives. 

“Importantly, we’re starting to normalise that understanding that there is a deep history we can actually engage with, and I think there’s a level of cultural pride that is starting to emanate now.” 

Support from Government and private sector  

Designing with Country has become an important focus area of the NSW Government and subsequently the industry in the last few years, according to CBRE’s National Director, Development & Infrastructure, Australia, Justin Woodcock. 

This movement follows the Government Architect NSW (GANSW) release of the March 2020 Designing with Country discussion paper and December 2020 Connecting with Country Draft Framework.  

“The draft Framework was prepared by First Nations members of the NSW public service, First Nations communities, and the GANSW, and is intended to inform planning, design, and delivery of built environment projects in NSW,” Woodcock says.  

“The ambition of this draft Framework is that those involved in planning, designing, and delivering built environment projects in NSW will commit to helping support the health and wellbeing of Country by valuing, respecting and being guided by Aboriginal people.”  

Fundamentally, Designing with Country provides an important platform for Government bodies and the private sector to engage with Aboriginal stakeholders, including the procurement of Aboriginal businesses to enable not just a genuine understanding of the land, but also the important values it brings to placemaking.  

Property and Development NSW, the central property agency for the NSW Government, echoes a similar sentiment. 

“We are proud to co-create some of our state’s incredible precincts into exceptional destinations, in collaboration with Aboriginal knowledge holders, government partners, community and stakeholders,” says Vy Nguyen, Executive Director Precinct Development, Property and Development NSW. 

“Our work comes with an enormous responsibility to ensure these future places consider and protect Country and First Nations culture, and tell the important stories of our past, for future generations. 

“We are applying a Country-centred approach to design, planning and development across our work on the Macquarie Street East, Parramatta North, and Coffs Harbour Jetty Foreshore precincts.”  

CBRE’s Development & Infrastructure team is working closely with PDNSW on both the Macquarie Street East and Parramatta North projects.  

“CBRE is able to ensure that Connecting with Country is successfully embedded in projects by understanding the requirements of the draft Framework and by undertaking meaningful and detailed consultation with First Nations people, listening to insights, and inviting opportunities for co-design inputs,” explains Woodcock.  

“Specifically, reviewing the draft Framework as an opportunity to add value, and not a requirement is an important step, which creates an opportunity for First Nations voices to provide input and value to a project. 

“It is imperative to ensure leading practice principles for engagement with Aboriginal stakeholders." 

To maximise the success and quality of Designing with Country projects, leading practice principles should be considered. These include: 
  • Respect and cultural safety 
  • Elevating the voices of Traditional Custodians 
  • Continued conversations  
  • Develop culturally responsive approaches 
  • Acknowledge and protect Aboriginal culture 

Ultimately, whether it’s Government or private sector-led, the end goal is shared.  

“We are transforming precincts today, preserving them for future generations, to create thriving arts and culture experiences that honour our rich Aboriginal and modern history,” says Nguyen.  

Benefits of Designing with Country 

The image shows an activation artwork titled Goodjal ba Ngoonii Koorndaam by Jarni McGuire.
Activation Artwork, Artist: Jarni McGuire, Title: Goodjal ba Ngoonii Koorndaam, Photo: Frances Andrijich, Art Consultant: APPARATUS 

Identifying the long-term metrics on Designing with Country is still limited given its infancy across Australia. Nonetheless, current public consensus is already extremely positive. 

One The Esplanade sits perched on the edge of Perth's Swan River. It is a landmark Brookfield Properties commercial office development, which boasts over 57,000 square-metres of premium grade office space, retail, dining and amenity, private gym, onsite childcare and premium end of trip facilities. More importantly, it showcases the developer’s prowess in Designing with Country.   

“We’ve already had lots of positive feedback from the Perth community on the building and ground plane,” says Winby.  

“As the building occupancy increases, we’ll start to see people engage differently with the spaces and spend time in areas like the building’s heart around the Oculus tree, on the seats under the heritage listed Moreton Bay Fig and exploring the stunning public art. 

“We’re very proud of our public art process which brought the stories relating to the site to life in the creation of two incredible sculptural artworks, namely ‘Within, without’ and ‘Goodjal ba Ngoonii Koorndaam’. 

In addition to the public art pieces, other elements resulting from consultation and collaboration with the Whadjuk Noongar people include the selection of the Tuart tree for the Oculus, and the installation of bespoke furniture referencing ceremonial dancing legs on the corner of The Esplanade and Barrack Street. 

“As a result of this journey, everybody involved in the project has become a lot more aware of the opportunities available through the design and development stages to achieve a richer response to a site's heritage and connection to Country. 

“We’ve also been fortunate to have worked closely and deepened our relationship with the Whadjuk Noongar people, which has allowed us to build a good framework for the next project,” Winby says. 

Challenges of Designing with Country 

Designing with Country demands careful consideration, planning and execution. While its challenges are evident, the final result is what makes it worthwhile for innovative developers.  

Winby highlights what developers need to consider:  

  • Time required to resolve the design:  

    “You’ve got a contractor that needs to start ordering and building things on a timeframe to get it done by a certain date. And you need to find time and space to engage in an authentic way. That is an ongoing focus for us – I wouldn’t say it was a challenge for us because we were fortunate to be working with people who understood that context and were keen to engage. But this is something that care always needs to be taken with.”
  • Developing positive and respectful relationships: 
    “It’s so important to develop a positive respectful relationship. There will be things that are sought-after or concepts that someone might put forward as what they want to see happen - and it unfortunately just can’t happen for cost or practical reasons. You will see that sort of challenge and need to accept that you will need to have constructive conversations about what can and can’t be achieved while working together to find a mutually acceptable outcome. For these conversations to be successful, they must be approached from a perspective of deep mutual respect founded on a positive relationship of wanting to achieve a great outcome.” 

  • Involving the right people:  

    “The people involved are crucial. That’s where the box-checking approach won’t work. You’ve got to get the right people talking to each other who trust each other. If you lose trust, the project can go off the rails resulting in an outcome that’s not what you’re looking for. Making sure you have the right people to engage with will bring you safely through the journey.”    

Casey notes that some incredible outcomes have been achieved in true authentic partnership with community. 

“We are seeing our people’s culture and values expressed on Country, we are seeing a beautiful, shared education process when industry and community comes together to create meaningful outcomes. Those are the times we hang on to. 

“In other instances, the dramatic demand and pressure that is being put on community to work in this space with people who perhaps aren’t always in the right place themselves to be doing this kind of work can have some fairly negative impacts on our people.  

“The difficulty is that we are talking about a serious societal issue, one that requires a great deal of personal effort to self-educate and shift thinking, but being delivered through the demands and speed of development. Unfortunately, those two things don’t always pair up well; it depends on the team. 

“We see the need for education before involvement. There are a lot of Reconciliation Action Plans out there that don’t seem to stimulate the education and reflection we need to create a culturally safe industry. The will is there and there are many excellent people who want to do their part to make change, we just need to step back a little and learn as people before we start acting as professionals on projects.” 

Quality of Designing with Country 


The Esplanade John Madden Photography

Addressing the quality of Designing with Country is important as it is almost impossible to regulate in traditional ways. Each project is tailored according to its environment, respective people, surroundings and end goal.  

For Brookfield Properties, this meant developing their own framework called the Cultural Safety Plan which provides a degree of structure and integrates cultural safety into different parts of their projects. 

“Our framework covered every stage of the design and through the development to weave this concept of “cultural safety” into the development, of which Designing with Country might be considered a subset.  

“It covered a range of activities, from cultural awareness training and incorporation of key material in subcontractor site inductions to give them awareness about the heritage of the site, through to cleansing ceremonies and review of the landscape design to ensure it responded to its place” says Winby.   

“I think it’s difficult to legislate or regulate as each site needs to be assessed on its merits. All you can really do is have a framework and use this to work out how best to respond to the project you’re working on.” 

In building these deeper working relationships, Casey adds that developers and designers should conduct some independent research before leaning on communities to teach them. 

“We only make up 3% of the population, after all. Cultural load is a huge issue at the moment, so the importance of self-education is critical before creating relationships that unfortunately often are really only based on work. It's about people first, not professionals.  

“It’s all about turning up. In your spare time go to the talks, go to the community events, reach out and contribute without expectation of return to the many social efforts of our people that really make an impact, before expecting to come together on a project. 

“Of course, there is no one right way to do this, but as a whole we need to always come back to the understanding that it's about Country, culture, and community first. And as a society, take on this journey as people first. 

“Something big we talk about is, how many project teams that have worked with community, ring up, and say: ‘Hey Aunty, remember that project we did together? Well, it's finished. Would you like to catch up and take a walk out on site to see how it all turned out?’ 

“A very small thing that really humanises the whole process, reminds us that it's not just a transaction, but a relationship."

Future of Designing with Country 

Given the gradual rise in Designing with Country, what does its future look like across Australia’s broader development pipeline?  

“I’d like to think the momentum is shifting in the right direction,” says Winby.  

“I think it will become more mainstream and I hope this results in places that are more welcoming and reflect their location and heritage. Ultimately it comes down to those relationships being established and built up over time.” 

Casey says that it’s hasn’t been long since Indigenous people have had the opportunity to access high-quality education in the built environment.  

“Those of us with industry experience are far and wide between. But those numbers are steadily increasing. One day, we would love to see these projects led by Indigenous peoples as industry professionals, in partnership with community. Rather than needing non-Indigenous people to speak for us.  

“It all comes back to the self-determination of our people to care for Country. To embed culture and values from within the industry rather than as a touch point from the outside. If we can all come together to see this happen, the impact of the projects on our communities and our society as a whole could be incredible. Imagine in every project, every town, you can see our culture, you can feel Country in every brick. 

“That’s our hope for the future.”