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Housing for livelihoods: the lifecycle of housing and infrastructure through a whole-of-system approach in remote Aboriginal settlements

30 Jun 2008

This study set out to review work to date on sustainable investment in desert settlements, reporting on extending the lifecycle of remote, particularly Aboriginal, settlement housing and infrastructure relative to social, technical and economic investment. We aimed to synthesise emerging understandings, articulate new thinking in relation to these understandings, and develop keystone strategies for exploring new ideas in the next stage of research. The main thesis of
this project is that technical and economic considerations alone are inadequate for developing innovative responses to expressed need. Key factors for success are local end-user experiences and the capacities of desert people in their social contexts, and how they can enhance technological decision-making, so as to extend the life of housing and enhance investment sustainability.

Our work was underpinned by the theoretical frameworks of the Total Capital Model, Socio- Technical Systems, Ekistic Theory and Technacy. In the whole-of-system approach we used the goal was a sustained contribution to the local livelihood outcome of housing for settlements. The study confirmed that this approach was an appropriate framework to understand housing and infrastructure issues in remote Aboriginal settlements, and a wide range of stakeholders and desert communities have strongly supported this research and the approach we took to address the issues that affect and can improve the lifecycle of houses and associated infrastructure.

We completed a number of research tasks in this work, including reviewing housing data and systems and other related literature, and analysing data for lifecycle model development. We conducted fieldwork with remote settlements, gathering the views from remote Aboriginal settlement residents and representatives predominantly in central Australia and from officers of the relevant departments of the Northern Territory Government. We examined relevant social, technical and contextual factors affecting the life of remote housing and associated infrastructure, noting broader social factors such as general community health and wellbeing (although they were outside the scope of this research).

Our central finding was that social housing success can be measured by its investment reach into the local fabric of settlement livelihoods, rather than on shelter and health alone. We refer to this position as the Housing for Livelihoods approach. We found that the housing and infrastructure lifecycle system in remote settlements suggested a high potential for livelihood benefit to local end users, but that this potential was well under-realised.

Key issues that appeared to most substantially affect the lifecycle of housing and infrastructure included, but were not limited to:

  • concerns for a lack of desert standards informed by principles of end-user demand that would stimulate climatically and socio-economically appropriate design and governance
  • a dearth of programs to facilitate local personalisation of the dwelling technology1 (possibly one of the key markers of housing longevity)
  • insufficient synchronisation between the design, materials and technology chosen for many houses with the supply of locally accessible and affordable house repair and maintenance resources (e.g. local access to minor tools, furniture, storage and basic plumbing and plug- in efficient appliances).
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