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Urban nullius? Urban Indigenous People and Climate Change

Department of Geography, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, SA 5005, Australia
School of Environment, University of Auckland, Auckland 1142, New Zealand
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2022, 14(17), 10830;
Submission received: 30 June 2022 / Revised: 22 August 2022 / Accepted: 26 August 2022 / Published: 30 August 2022


Climate change is impacting cities and urban regions in significant ways, and people living within them must work out how to live with and adapt to the changes they bring. Indigenous peoples are increasingly moving to and living in cities, yet how they experience climate change within them is not understood. While literature explores Indigenous experiences of climate change and how Indigenous knowledge is being used to combat it, this work is geographically located in rural and remote Indigenous territories—not cities. This paper presents the results of a review that sought to find out why this is the case. Our aim was to identify scholarship that discussed how Indigenous people are affected by climate change in cities. To do so, we undertake a narrative literature review, which analyses content to distil key concepts in the literature, which are then presented in the paper to form a narrative. We find a significant gap in the literature addressing Indigenous experiences and voices concerning climate change in cities. We argue that this is due to the ongoing legacy of settler colonization, which has erased Indigenous peoples from urban territories to the extent that even when they are visible, urban Indigenous people are characterized as inauthentic and vulnerable. We call for action to overturn this insidious form of urban nullius to reclaim and assert Indigenous voices on and about climate change and policy in cities.

1. Introduction

Indigenous peoples are increasingly dwelling in urban areas [1], and the urbanisation of Indigenous peoples is particularly notable in settler colonial societies (such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States). In Canada, roughly 60 percent of Indigenous peoples now live in urban areas (an increase of about 60 percent since 2006). Canada’s Indigenous population is also comparatively young, with an average age of 32 years (which is a decade younger than the non-Indigenous population of Canada); the demographic youthfulness of Canada’s Indigenous population is similarly replicated amongst other Indigenous peoples in the United States of America living in urban areas. Nearly 80 percent of Australia’s Indigenous population resides in urban environments, and in New Zealand, most Indigenous Māori (84 percent) are urbanities [2,3,4,5]. However, as we discuss later, in all these countries, cities often marginalise and exclude Indigenous peoples [6].
Beyond these demographic numbers (with the increasing numeric dominance of Indigenous urban dwellers), the specific experiences of and issues encountered by urban Indigenous peoples suggest that it is time that scholars and decision-makers pay closer attention to them [7,8]. One area which merits attention is the ways in which Indigenous peoples are and will continue to be subject to the impacts of climate change and/or play a role in urban climate policy. While many studies have described the nature of climate impacts and Indigenous adaptation to them [9,10,11], much of this work focuses on Indigenous experience in or around their territories in rural or remote locations.
However, scholarship shows that people living in urban areas already feel the negative impacts of climate change and that cities face specific climate-related challenges [12]. Moreover, projections indicate that future climate change will present even more risks for urban areas, with more intense extreme events, less secure water supplies, and climate-induced damage to the built environment, as well as infrastructure, necessitating radical alterations to how cities function and plan.
Successive IPCC Working Group II reports [13,14] have also declared that action in urban areas is critical to successful climate change adaptation around the globe as urban centres hold more than half the world’s population and most of its economic activities and built assets. In addition, urban economic activities are not only highly susceptible to the negative impacts of climate change, but urban-based activities and residents also contribute a large portion of global greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change-related risks are increasing (including storm surges, rising sea levels, heat stress, extreme rainfall, flooding, drought, air pollution, and water scarcity) with large-scale negative impacts on people (their livelihoods, assets, and health) and economies (both local and national), as well as ecosystems. Climate change is interacting with other socio-economic and environmental stressors to exacerbate and compound risks to cities as well as the well-being of individuals and collectives (households, extended family, community). The Fifth Assessment Report (Working Group II) of the IPCC identified that certain groups of urban dwellers face higher risks (injury, mortality, disruption of livelihoods, loss or damage to homes, assets, or non-material things) from climate change [13]. Vulnerable urban social groups include women and children, the elderly, and people with chronic medical conditions and/or disabilities, as well as low-income households and informal settlements in flood-prone areas.
However, urban Indigenous peoples were not explicitly identified as being especially vulnerable to climate change. Indeed, the IPCC’s chapter on urban areas did not mention Indigenous peoples (IPCC Working Group II’s Fifth Assessment Report). While the most recent IPCC report (Sixth Assessment Report) does recognise Indigenous peoples’ presence within cities, it is still quite constrained. The authors observe Indigenous actors’ involvement in recent climate justice activism as well as the value of “Indigenous and local knowledge” [14]. Indeed, the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge into urban climate adaptation decision-making planning and responses is noted for its potential to produce multiple co-benefits in terms of “addressing Indigenous dispossession, historical inequities, and the marginalisation of Indigenous values that occurred” [14] (pp. 6–16). Yet, the latest IPCC is surprisingly silent on the differential vulnerability and adaptation options for Indigenous urban dwellers.
Instead, emphasis is placed on the vulnerability of rural Indigenous communities to the impacts of climate change and the extent to which Indigenous economies are dependent on climate-sensitive resources and primary industries, most notably fisheries and the agriculture and forestry sectors. The IPCC report also argues that the capacity of Indigenous people to adapt to climate change might be hampered by current legislative and planning regimes; further, the implementation of adaptation strategies such as relocation of communities may be problematic due to Indigenous ways of life, cultural identities, and heritage being associated with places, yet there is limited consideration of how this plays out in urban areas. Moreover, the IPCC report suggests that Indigenous urban dwellers are largely overlooked, corroborating our own interest in trying to ascertain how climate change is impacting urban Indigenous peoples and why they are not present in the literature. In this review, we seek to understand why this is the case and for what reasons.
In this context, we began an investigation that sought to understand what has been written about the Indigenous experience of climate change in urban areas. A very preliminary review revealed that where the scholarship has addressed this topic, it is focused mainly on sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific, and Asia [15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24,25]. Very little work has explicitly focused on the experience of Indigenous peoples in urban areas elsewhere and has included almost nothing with respect to settler societies. We thus identified that several gaps do remain in our understanding of the relationships between the impacts of climate change on urban Indigenous peoples and how they are included within local government-led climate adaptation planning, policies, and practices, as well as whether Indigenous-led adaptation is even taking place [17]. This review adds to the scholarship about Indigenous experiences of climate change in settler societies, especially in New Zealand and Australia.

2. Materials and Methods

In presenting the review, we used the methodology suggested by Ferrari for a narrative review, which allowed us to explore several areas and questions to distil a narrative about the issue [26]. Narrative reviews facilitate the construction of a comprehensive, objective, and critically evaluative analysis of contemporary scholarship around a given topic. A narrative review enables the pulling together of multiple pieces of information to present a broad perspective on a topic or problem, which was particularly appropriate for this paper, as the subject was so difficult to capture within any particular discipline. Narrative reviews are also useful for providing the opportunity to consider both theory and context and, in turn, provoke thought and present different cultural perspectives in a balanced manner, which, again, has been integral to the presentation of our results. In order to ensure rigor, a narrative review, as with a systematic one, must identify and search databases, create search terms and years searched, and be clear about the inclusion and exclusion criteria. Once these criteria and the outputs are decided, narrative analysis allows the documentation of findings via the presentation of key concepts.
This approach enabled us to connect a very disparate range of articles and hence to investigate the sources for what they revealed, whether directly or indirectly, about Indigenous peoples’ experiences and voices about climate change in cities. The findings are then presented via a discussion of a series of the critical concepts that emerged from this process.
We began by conducting searches within the University of Adelaide’s e-library system, which enabled us to search multiple databases. We focused on Scopus, Google Scholar, and ProQuest, using various key search terms (see below). We did not set boundaries on time or location in the initial searches. While our interest was in locating literature about this in our own countries, Australia and Aotearoa, the paucity of sources meant we cast the searches as wide as possible.
In each case, we found that when we put in the search terms with quotation marks (“) around them, we got zero results every time. However, when we put in the search terms as is, we got thousands of results. For example, when we entered the search terms “indigenous and urban and climate change” together, there were 55,000 hits, but when the same phrase was entered bound by quotation marks, we obtained zero hits. While this made deciding which sources to read and analyse challenging, it also clarified the literature gap. While there is scholarship around “Indigenous planning and health in cities” and around “climate change and Indigenous peoples” and “Indigenous peoples and planning”, more broadly [27], almost nothing focuses on Indigenous experiences of climate change and/or adaptation in cities.
Given the challenge of finding sources that exactly addressed our investigative focus, to decide which items to select for the final review, we examined the first 20 pages of sources (with each page having 20 citations) in each of the three databases, which amounted to a preliminary scan of the first 400 sources in each category, or 1200 across the three databases. Ultimately, from these 400 in each database, and using the search words as our guide, we extracted, in the first place, 26 articles that we discovered were common across all three databases and then selected an additional 20–30 references in each database that were relevant. There were very few articles before 2000 that were relevant to this case, so we have excluded them. We also excluded articles that were about Indigenous plants in cities. We also noted that within the international literature (such as studies based in South Africa, India, Pakistan, and Malaysia), there is not always a clear division between Indigenous knowledge and local knowledge; being an Indigenous person means different things in different countries and urban may mean other things in different countries. We acknowledge these constraints within the information we gathered from these sources. These results are presented in Table 1.
In sum, we reviewed 103 articles in depth. When analysing and reading the papers, we assessed them against the following: (i) the extent to which they addressed the relationship between Indigenous peoples, climate change, and cities; and/or (ii) considered, either individually or collectively, Indigenous peoples, health and climate change and Indigenous peoples, and urban planning; and (iii) the extent to which they narrated insights about Indigenous experiences in urban areas/cities.
Overall, we found that in settler societies like Australia and New Zealand, Indigenous voices in planning are not represented, made invisible, and not represented in climate policy or action in any specific way. This represents an ongoing and present legacy of colonisation and presents, in effect, a form of urban nullius. We argue that to understand Indigenous experiences of climate change in cities, we must first confront and decolonise planning practices and override stereotypical views of Indigenous peoples as rural or remote. Conceptions of Indigenous peoples in cities must be replaced with ones that situate them at the heart of cities—as urban citizens—and as its first peoples—all of whom are entitled to a voice and agency in deciding their futures in the Anthropocene, including addressing the impacts of climate change.

3. Findings

3.1. Settler Colonialism Erases Indigenous Presence in Cities

Our key finding relates to the dominance of literature that highlights that settler colonialism is still active today and that, in multiple ways, has worked to erase the idea of Indigenous presence in cities. The material construction of cities and urban planning have been “a weapon brandished to erase/eradicate Indigenous peoples or at least contain them” [26] (p. 7). Academics have done extensive research about the role of place-making and urban planning in settler colonial societies and concur that settler colonialism generates an urban/rural divide wherein cities are imagined, constructed, and designed as settler spaces [28,29,30,31,32,33,34]. These are, as Blatman-Thomas and Porter write, “the pinnacle of civilization … [and] key sites [of assimilation]” [35] (p. 33).
At the same time, rural environments are imagined (through settler-colonial eyes) as the spaces where Indigenous peoples naturally “belong.” Finegan terms this phenomenon “settler urbanism,” whereby Indigenous peoples continue to be seen as “out-of-place” in cities (even when urban areas are built on ancestral lands of Indigenous peoples who continue to reside there) [36] (p. 28–29). In this way, Indigenous communities’ as well as nations’ unique interests in and rights within urban environments remain primarily overlooked by most non-Indigenous urban researchers, decision-makers, and civil society groups [37].
Settler colonialism is shown in the materiality and governmentality of urban development and life [38]. Scholars trace the roles that cities have played (and continue to play) in the “expropriation of Indigenous land, the dispossession, removal, sequestration, and—importantly—transformation of Indigenous peoples” [39] (p. 5). Several researchers working on the histories of settler colonial cities detail the critical role that urban planning has played in the regulation of Indigenous lands and bodies. Stanger-Ross, in a study of urban development in Vancouver from the 1930s to the 1950s, demonstrates how the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands and their removal to reserves was justified based on the “supposed requirements of urban vitality and development” [31] (p. 544). Parsons’ work explicates the relationship between Queensland state government laws around public health, nuisance, and public safety as well as the forced removal of more than one-third of the Queensland Indigenous population to institutions (missions, reserves, and lock hospitals) in the early twentieth century and the erasure of Indigenous presence in Queensland urban areas [40,41].
Likewise, the urban scholar Porter [6,33] charts a plethora of research into the history of urban planning in Australia’s government (central, state, and local) where processes and governmentalities (including spatial planning) are used as powerful tools deployed by settler colonial actors to dispossess Indigenous peoples. Indigenous settlements were seen as a blemish on growing settler colonial cities in Australia and other settler colonial societies, and the courts, policies, and planning processes were all employed to limit or erase Indigenous presence in urban areas. As Barry and Thompson-Fawcett argue, drawing on the work of Māori planning scholar Matunga:
non-Indigenous planning theory and praxis remains inhospitable to Indigenous expressions of both political and economic sovereignty … there has been a failure to theorize the oppression of planning activity undertaken by Indigenous communities for centuries, and a failure to recognise the current need for space for Indigenous groups to achieve transformative action
[42] (p. 411).
Further, the literature on settler colonialism aptly demonstrates that settler colonialism is not a historical event but rather an ongoing process and structure, which means that Indigenous dispossession is not confined to the past. The settler colonial state continues to seek to assert its sovereignty over Indigenous lands and bodies. While the means have changed from physical exclusion to integration over time [43], the latter is still underpinned by the same “logic of elimination” [44] (p. 387). Altman argues that settler colonialism has simply moved from the “elimination of the different” to the “elimination of difference” [45] (p. 213).
As such, it no longer excludes Indigenous people from cities but creates economic and social pressures to move to cities, where it then becomes easier to overlook their ongoing difference. As Blatman-Thomas and Porter write, “Indigenous people have been variously invited, forced or cajoled into urban spaces over the course of settler colonial histories,” creating multiple sites of accommodation and resistance within settler colonial urban areas [35] (p. 33).
This point is reinforced by Berg-Nordlie et al.’s 2022 study of urban Sámi. Their research also suggests that the “chances for urban Sámi identity and culture to thrive will improve if more widespread acceptance can take root in society—both Indigenous and dominant-group society—that urban Sámi lifestyles are no less Sámi than the rural >Sámi lifestyles” [46] (p. 252). The impacts of climate change on Sámi reindeer herding include scarcity of food sources for reindeer and heightened financial pressures on herders, all of which mean that the Sámi are increasingly seeking alternative livelihood opportunities, including Sámi people moving to towns. Thus, how all Sámi are affected by climate change should matter to scholars, practitioners, and decision-makers in Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia. Furthermore, climate change means that urban Sámi experiences will be an ever-increasing domain that requires focused study, plans, policies, and strategies [47].
The active and ongoing nature of settler colonialism has several related impacts: (i) the erasure of Indigenous voices, experiences, and agency as well as (ii) the erasure of knowledge. The next sections of the paper present these key themes and the dimensions within them that highlight why we have, to date, so little understanding of urban Indigenous experiences of climate change.

3.2. Erasure of Voices, Experience, and Agency

3.2.1. Authenticity

One theme relates to the concept of authenticity, in both dispossessing Indigenous peoples from urban spaces and forcing them to move to urban areas, it nullifies acknowledgement of difference. Discourse around what is understood as “authentic” Indigeneity fuels the erasure of Indigenous presence in cities.
The need to demarcate Indigenous peoples into rural and urban spaces has resulted in a rejection of Indigenous presence in cities because Indigeneity is constructed as being essentially “outback,” remote, and/or rural. Horn points out that the construction of Indigeneity as “essentially rural” has disadvantaged Indigenous peoples worldwide, demonstrating in a case study of Latin America that this debate over what is “real” Indigeneity played a crucial role in the exclusion of urban Indigenous peoples, blocking their capacity to deliver Agenda 2030 in Latin American cities [48]. Fredericks vividly describes this issue in an Australian context:
There seems to be a widespread myth that, when Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people enter cities or regional centres, we somehow become less Indigenous. It is almost as if we have to leave our identities at the city limits, jetty or airport. But when Indigenous people live in a city or town, we don’t become any less or any more Indigenous. Some Aboriginal people are descendants of the Aboriginal people who occupied the geographic localities where urban centres have now been built. These Aboriginal people, like their ancestors, belong to the Country on which urban centres have grown. For example, my family and many others lived and still live in the geographic areas where cities now stand. The blood of my ancestors still flows through me, as it does through other Aboriginal people, and we breathe, walk and live on Country that is occupied by cities
[3] (p. 5).
This preoccupation with “authenticity” is problematic because it assumes that Indigenous culture is static and cannot change, and therefore does not provide space for Indigenous peoples to hold multiple or diverse cultural identities (be it traditional, contemporary, or hybrid) nor allow that multiple subjectivities can coexist with each other (within individuals, families, communities, tribal groups, or Indigenous nations). Thus, many urban Indigenous peoples are overlooked in policy making on climate change simply because they do not conform to Western colonial stereotypes of what a “real” Indigenous person is, with erroneous assumptions that those living in urban areas have no culture.
The ongoing settler colonial influence means that the city is a central site wherein these exclusionary geographies and practices (involving material and discursive imaginaries, as well as practices interwoven with neoliberal logics) are deployed. The plethora of processes and practices that exclude and marginalise Indigenous peoples within cities—be it from urban planning, environmental governance, and management regimes, as well as economic development activities—is a contemporary manifestation of the original colonial dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands and waters. The ways in which Indigenous peoples are marginalised within academic and decision-makers’ thinking and practices about urban climate change adaptation, therefore, needs to be understood within the longer histories of Western (and colonial) societies, Western ontologies, and epistemologies that sought to simultaneously exclude and marginalise, as well as police and regulate Indigenous peoples, knowledge, worldviews, and modes of living.

3.2.2. Colonial Urban Planning Structures Disenfranchise Indigenous Voices in Climate Planning

This persistent framing of Indigenous peoples as only living in remote or rural localities—or being inauthentic if they live in cities—has subsequent implications for climate change planning; further, it has implications for Indigenous participation in it. In this case, climate planning is not “fit for purpose” concerning Indigenous presence in cities [49]. For example, as Potter argues: “dominant cultural imaginaries inform material and discursive practices of place-making with significant consequence for diverse, inclusive and climate change-responsive urban environments” [50] (p. 1536). In deploying universalising constructions of nature, they “reproduce colonial ways of knowing” and, by association, subordinate other ontologies, they do not allow space for alternative ways of being and doing, or other solutions to current and future (climate) policy [51] (p. 34) and, over time, these practices of exclusion will intensify [50]. The persistence of ontological exclusions in policy precludes Indigenous perspectives from being included in adaptation planning.
Moreover, there remain “white affects” [51] (p. 76) in cities [52]; this, due to settler colonialism, causes fear and what Tolia-Kelly calls “Anthropocenic culturecide” [53] (p. 786). Paying attention to what comprises Indigenous cultural identity in cities is essential. The UN Forum for Indigenous peoples emphasises the need to acknowledge that Indigenous peoples have multiple identities within urban areas and that the colonial conception that there is a divide between rural and urban peoples is a false logic.

3.2.3. Climate Change and Colonisation

Further, how we construct Indigenous presence in cities is closely related to the advent of climate change as a phenomenon in itself. Carson notes in Australia that the Australian continent experienced the start of the Anthropocene at the same time Britain invaded [54]. Therefore, he argues that it is no coincidence that colonisation and climate change are implicated with each other, as their origins coincide. As he states:
Indigenous reconciliation and environmental sustainability are … not separate issues but rather parallel consequences of the same colonial moment, the same cultural instincts, and the same material practices. Redressing one means addressing the other, complicating our politics while enriching our lives and Country as we figure out what the late Anthropocene might look like
[54] (p. 4)
In trying to understand the impact of climate change on Indigenous peoples in cities, we also need to understand the implications of colonisation; the two walk together.

3.2.4. Vulnerability

Our review also reveals that research about urban Indigenous peoples is preoccupied with Indigenous “vulnerability.” In an urban and peri-urban context, this is often constructed around a discourse of “lack” and socio-economic disadvantage. Identifying specific vulnerabilities is essential, as Tam et al. show in a study examining the seasonal and weather-related behavioural effects among urban Aboriginal, urban non-Aboriginal, and remote Aboriginal participants in Canada [55]. This quantitative study specifically looked at the differences in how urban, rural, and remote Indigenous people are impacted by seasonal change and weather; this is important information in assessing how climate change will affect the wellbeing of different groups of people. In this case, climate change was found to have significant associations with behaviour, including mood, social activity, weight, sleep, and food consumption.
Urban Indigenous peoples can also suffer food security vulnerabilities due to climate change [56,57]. In a paper focusing on the Indigenous people of the Solomon Islands, urban Indigenous populations have a reduced ability to self-cultivate agri-food products or collect wild foods and therefore have consumed more ultra-processed foods (classified as NOVA 4) and takeaways; in so doing, they not only had less diverse diets compared to rural populations but, therefore, were less resilient in dealing with climate impacts [58]. In this sense, the already limited ability of urban Indigenous people to access traditional food may further decline due to climate change.
However, while it is important to acknowledge that disadvantage exists, it is also necessary to contextualise it within the ongoing realities of colonialism (in its diverse manifestations) and ensure that it is not the only dynamic/factor in how Indigenous peoples are identified. Tangible vulnerabilities and disadvantages need attention but must be differentiated from discourses of lack and vulnerability, which can constrain opportunities to exercise agency and voice. Indeed, the Western attachment to vulnerability discourses has resulted in some Indigenous peoples rejecting them as an assault on their identity [9] and asserting their rights to play an active role in climate and adaptation policy. In Australia, a study that investigated urban and peri-urban people’s vulnerability and adaptive capacity to climate change [59,60,61] showed how the emphasis on vulnerability, amongst other things, created a mechanism by which to ignore and override considerations of how Indigenous groups could (and wanted to) participate in climate policy forums. In sum, the reliance on stereotypes and assumptions about Indigenous cultures as being vulnerable in this case creates such a strong discourse that very little space is created for the exercise of agency and power relating to how Indigenous people may conceive themselves in the context of urban climate impacts, as well as solutions.
Given the focus in the literature on vulnerability, it is unsurprising to find correlative trends in climate studies that consider Indigenous health. Indeed, climate change is a complex environmental health and justice challenge in an urban planning context [62,63]. To date, urban climate action planning has not differentiated between Indigenous and non-Indigenous experiences, and little research has been undertaken that evaluates this dynamic in practice. However, climate change impacts on Indigenous health are many and real. They include strong emotional responses, suicide, depression, and anxiety linked to changes in meteorological factors, seasonality, and exposure to acute and chronic weather events. However, the impacts of climate change are also connected to issues such as place attachment, the disruption of culture that can occur, alterations to food security, and forced human mobility [64]. It can reasonably be supposed that urban Indigenous peoples would feel these impacts and that urban planning also needs to account for the health impacts of climate change.
This focus on health has resulted in some vital work around the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the health impacts of climate change. For example, the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCARF, Australia) undertook research that asked questions about how climate change and changes in the occurrence of extreme events might affect aspects of Indigenous culture and living conditions that affect health and sought to understand which types of intervention most effectively increase the level of community resilience. Ford’s work in Canada highlights multiple complexities when considering the relationship between Indigenous health and climate change [65,66], while Williams notes the relationship between climate and Indigenous women’s wellbeing [67]. This is important because, as Fan and Sengupta show in a study of Montreal, climate impacts, such as extreme heat exposure, disproportionally affect socioeconomically disadvantaged populations in cities [68]. However, while this study does not definitively correlate Indigenous peoples with socio-economically disadvantaged ones, the fact remains that too often, Indigenous peoples end up experiencing this disadvantage.
This is a separate matter from the fact that Indigenous peoples are not actively involved in climate policy and compounds the general lack of visibility they encounter in urban contexts. Mendez further notes in a study of California’s most climate-impacted cities that climate planning and public health planning tend to occur in parallel, making it even harder to ensure that Indigenous interests are represented [62]. As Johnson et al. show, this circumstance means that Indigenous people are often not considered for special consideration in climate-related health policy but instead are included as one of several vulnerable groups, a fact that leads to one-sided adaptation measures that are mainly about reducing the severity of physical and mental impacts [69]. This approach reflects “the centrality of western worldviews, philosophies, epistemologies, values and knowledges in framing the issues and defining the solutions” [69] (p. 489).
Pertinent to this is the fact that health and wellbeing are understood differently from Western and Indigenous perspectives. For example, Indigenous health and wellbeing in Australia are consistently linked to their attachment to their country or territories. In addressing health issues for and with Indigenous peoples, the cultural landscape at their base needs articulation and explicit recognition. Climate health and policy literature also tend to overlook social and political determinants of health, as well as obscure the role of Indigenous knowledge.

3.3. Erasure of Knowledge in Urban Settings

The other overriding impact of settler colonisation is that Indigenous knowledge itself, both as a fact and as an idea, is erased as a factor or dynamic in considerations of how to engage with urban climate issues. What role does Indigenous knowledge play in an urban climate policy context? Many studies reflect on the potential of Indigenous knowledge systems to resolve climate impacts. However, the construction of such knowledge is yet again located and constructed as being rural or remote. Indigenous knowledge is also described as a literal collection of “facts” rather than “processes” by which Indigenous knowledge may be generated, held, and enacted (as a way of life, ethics and worldviews, governance structures, and management practices).
Further, the desire to seek and use Indigenous knowledge for climate change management reflects a limited understanding of the (often) place-based context of Indigenous knowledge and the fact that it is specific to places and time and thus does not necessarily offer a template for general application. This misunderstanding of the nature of Indigenous knowledge not only hampers the possibility of having climate conversations that matter in urban contexts but also fails to reflect recognition of the fact that differences in geography and culture shape people’s responses to climate change [70]. Further settler colonisation has, in and of itself, negatively impacted on Indigenous knowledge in multiple ways.

3.3.1. Cultural Palatibility

The use of Indigenous knowledge in urban planning tends to revolve around what is seen as culturally palatable within neoliberal Western paradigms and constructions of what Indigenous knowledge should be. As such, it is common in settler societies to see local governments trying to accord respect to Indigenous knowledge via customs such as flying Indigenous flags, welcome ceremonies, and Indigenous naming of parks and gardens [71]. In many ways, this is not about recognising and using Indigenous knowledge systems per se, but rather the tokenistic recognition of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous cultures (or markers of “otherness”). Welcome to the country, flags, and naming places are practices that are about settlers trying to demonstrate that they are allies, but they are also attempts to reduce feelings of guilt without decolonising themselves, institutions, or ways of life. However, as Fredericks highlights below with an example from Australia, the superficial nature of this engagement with Indigenous knowledge in cities—although truly well-meaning—again ensures the Western gaze evades seeing how Indigenous peoples use, live, and know urban environments:
Other than the observation of strict cultural protocol in terms of a Welcome to Country, Acknowledgment to Country or recognition of Country, we are often locked into a cultural paradigm that is a romanticised notion of the pre-colonial past. This continued focus on the ‘traditional’ cultural aspects and romanticism ignores the continuous presence of Aboriginal people within the cities of Australia. Moreover, it ignores the interweaving of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within a contemporary post-invasion historical context. In effect, it conceals the ways that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people use and see places and spaces in everyday urban life
[3] (p. 5–6).

3.3.2. The Potential of Indigenous Knowledge

Without deep and sophisticated consideration of these issues, Indigenous peoples remain on the outside of decision making, with the potential and promise inherent in their knowledge practices, a lost opportunity. There are some studies that reflect on the potential of Indigenous knowledge to inform urban policy—as Barry and Porter remind us, knowledge “recognition in this mode is produced through the ‘language of the master’ and in that sense tends to dilute and accommodate (in the pernicious sense of co-opt) Indigenous claims” [72] (p. 171).
Yet, emerging scholarship shows the importance of the role and use of Indigenous knowledge for urban climate management [73]. For example, it can be used in conjunction with scientific models to decrease risk exposure in cities [74]. Its incorporation with scientific knowledge may also assist in the development of useful city-specific mitigatory and adaptive strategies for urban climate change risk governance. Gupta and Braman’s study of Silchar, the second-largest city in the state of Assam in India, suggests that its culturally diverse ethnic population creates a convergence of very rich and varied traditional knowledge [74].
The use of Indigenous knowledge in cities can further improve ecological restoration, if it is undertaken through an Indigenous lens. In their case study of an urban park restoration project in Seattle, Hernandez and Vogt suggest that eco-colonialism, kincentric ecology, and environmental narratives can all be used as indicators to ensure Indigenous perspectives are part of restoration projects right from the very beginning [75]. Similarly, Long et al., in a case study in Can Tho City, show how understanding Indigenous landscapes and knowledge will contribute to the sustainability of urban landscape management, and that Indigenous knowledge should be respected and can be used in urban design [76].
More broadly, active knowledge sharing can increase the appropriateness and effectiveness of adaptation strategies. In their paper on biocultural stewardship, McMillen et al. show how diverse knowledge systems and co-learning engagements can strengthen communities of practice [77]. In this example, the authors built a collaboration which enabled them to implement training about stewardship and embedded Native Hawaiian perspectives; it was then adopted by stewardship practitioners in New York. A case study of urban Indigenous communities in Accra also shows the role Indigenous knowledge can play in urban climate planning and adaptation. In this case study, patterns of ethnic settlements enabled long-term sharing of climate knowledge—which, in turn, has the potential to mobilise more effective design—and community acceptance of appropriate adaptation strategies [78]. In another African study, one which examined Indigenous perspectives about climate adaptation in three peri-urban communities in South Africa [79], results showed that while communities are aware of climate change, little to no efforts are currently being made to adapt to climatic change due to a range of cultural beliefs/knowledge which act as drivers to impact climate change adaptation behaviour in the South African context.
This insight highlights how understanding the value of Indigenous knowledge can assist, moderate, and develop policy responses and be potentially powerful drivers in management practice. In the Marshall Islands, in the city of Majuro, another study reveals the importance of acknowledging that “traditional” [or] “local” ecological knowledge is not as static as it is often perceived to be and that it can work together with scientific knowledge to address issues like climate change [80] (p. 75).
There are then multi-faceted ways to use and embrace Indigenous knowledge in cities, but to do so effectively, we need to unlearn and decolonise conventional—and simplistic—notions of what Indigenous knowledge is. As Lyons et al. assert, incorporation and recognition of Indigenous knowledge—and their cultural institutes—is not only socially just but can strengthen climate policy and become a source of resilience [81].

4. Discussion

To go back to our starting point, our review has highlighted that when trying to understand the relationship between urban Indigenous peoples and climate change, the legacy and active influence of settler colonisation continues to act to erase Indigenous peoples’ voices and presence in cities. In effect, it enacts forms of urban nullius—a case where Indigenous peoples are not seen to exist in cities. In considering how to redress these impacts, to focus instead on hearing what Indigenous perspectives, knowledge, and agency could bring to climate debates and solutions in the cities within which they live, what pathways can be taken?
We argue that the first step forward needs to be recognition that Indigenous peoples do live in cities, that they maintain contemporary authentic cultural identities, and that they may experience discrete and culturally mediated effects of climate change that need specific attention. Indigenous rights, sovereignty, and voices need to be heard and active in urban climate change policy. We cannot prejudge that voice but learn to invite and hear it. Only then is it possible to authentically work collaboratively with Indigenous groups and address their aspirations in an appropriate and decolonised way. A path that goes beyond raising an Aboriginal flag or giving an urban park an Indigenous language name but reclaims Indigenous voices in planning [29].
Again, scholars offer some ideas on how to achieve this. One suggestion is to develop place-based approaches to adaptation that recognise urban places as Indigenous territories first and foremost, and Indigenising adaptation in cities [82]. As Hernandez reflects:
In order to decolonize, we must not only revisit the colonial legacies, ideologies, and violence enacted on Indigenous lands, but also engage with them … It is returning the autonomy that has been denied and stolen from Indigenous peoples—including the continue dismissal of tribal sovereignty … We cannot completely eradicate the colonial history of many settler states, but we can move towards an Indigenous future that no longer engages in these colonial structures
[83] (p. 32).
Other scholars argue we need to envision cities as more human and environmentally just, and this includes the incorporation of Indigenous life worlds as well. One example is in the application of a kincentric approach, one that describes the relationship Indigenous peoples have with their environment and incorporates Indigenous knowledge systems and embeds them into policy in ways appropriate to that place [75]. These Indigenous knowledge systems must be contextualised to that specific region. As Hernandez and Vogt argue, kincentric approaches can actualise respect for Indigenous ways of being and bring about a shift from rights to responsibility [75]. They make a call to action to embrace Indigenous teachings that incorporate all living systems. As they assert, in this way, kincentric ecology acknowledges and brings into the present the relationship Indigenous peoples have exercised for millennia. This kind of approach also encourages intersectionality and can facilitate more just power distributions in policy and actions [84].
Hernandez and Vogt also argue for a reshaping of our view of colonialism to articulate it as “eco-colonialism” which acknowledges that histories of colonial invasion also correlate with periods of intense ecological destruction—and the harbinging of climate change [75]. As such, decolonisation is not just about the relationship between colonial structures and societies and Indigenous peoples, but is also about restoring and recognising the ecological destruction that came in its wake. In this context, scholars such as Haraway argue that it is time to rethink the temporal and spatial scales of eco-social responsibility [85,86]. Such responsibility decolonises [87] and unlearns dominant neoliberal planning knowledge [88], moving us towards the shift needed to create a posthumanist city [89].
Allied with the understandings that cities are worlds that effectively silence Indigeneity, is a concomitant call for coexistence, and urging for all citizens to acknowledge different ways of thinking, knowing, and inhabiting cities [90]. In this context, Lobo argues for the adoption of affective ecologies, ones that decentre humans and distribute agency more fairly [91]. In discussing this, she reflects on the cultural protocols of care used by the Larrikia people in the Northern Territory, Australia, where urban places, in this case, Darwin, have also become conceived of as urban country.
Barry and Thompson-Fawcett also argue that it is integral to develop alternative decolonial ways of developing relationships between urban Indigenous peoples, planners, and policymakers (between the “planner” and the “planned”) [42]. These include exploring property development and Indigenous peoples, including Indigenous-led property development, and the types of tenure arrangements that can facilitate recognition of and inclusion of Indigenous peoples’ rights, knowledge, and decision-making authority within cities. All of which are built around legal recognition that Indigenous peoples are not only residents of, but also authority-holders within contemporary cityscapes (who use different terms to describe themselves, be it First Nations in Canada, Traditional Owners or First Peoples in Australia, or Mana Whenua or Tangata Whenua in New Zealand); they are part of broader Indigenous efforts to decolonise and (re)claim their urban environments.
Other scholars focus on Indigenous ways of knowing and being as providing an opportunity to create more holistic and relational cities. Plumwood argues, for example, that Western knowledge, in being hyper-separated, reinforces dualistic and hierarchical thinking, which is antithetical to effective environmental and climate policy, whereas Indigenous knowledge can be used to harness and create co-emergent worlds based on responsibility and care [92]. Weir builds on this idea by describing “connectivity thinking,” founded on Australian Indigenous ideas of connection to country, enabling multispecies entanglements to create ethical engagements with nature in cities and beyond [93]. Engaging with approaches like these also creates opportunities to build Indigenous wellbeing [94].
Opportunities also exist to acknowledge the ways in which Indigenous peoples are agents of their own change and to support the strategic localism of Indigenous adaptation approaches through tailored and place-based adaptation in cities [9,95]. In this vein, Lobo calls for an urban cosmopolitics that articulates modes of coexistence in urban areas [91]. This may be one way to create imaginaries of urban futures that bring together rather than divide Indigenous and non-Indigenous worlds in white settler cities [91]. In this context, the Indigenous scholar, Cajete, argues that greater respect for and reliance on Indigenous knowledge for Indigenous community building is necessary to address the consequences of climate change [96].
Finally, just as Indigenous nations and communities are (and were) removed, displaced, and marginalised in cities, they are also active participants in economic and cultural developments taking place within urban environments, which includes acting as property developers, business operators, and social service providers. They are involved in developments to ensure that new civil identity projects (such as art, community centres, public parks, and infrastructure) at least partly recognise Indigenous peoples’ presence in urban environments [6].
A diversity of Indigenous resurgent activities linked to Indigenous urbanism now seek to disrupt the mainstream (settler colonial) spatiality of cities to build towards Indigenous urbanism (101). These practices include Indigenous peoples seeking to reclaim public spaces in cities by campaigning for the restoration of Indigenous place names, obtaining commissions for Indigenous architecture and art displays, and other initiatives that commemorate, protect, and make visible, Indigenous histories and heritage in urban areas, as well as the restoration of degraded ecosystems and human–nature connections [34,97,98,99,100]. All of these activities can destabilise the imagined geographies of cities as exclusively and distinctly settler colonial (non-Indigenous) spaces.

5. Conclusions

This review sought to understand in what ways scholarship explores how urban Indigenous peoples experience climate change. Analysis revealed that there is a clear gap in the literature, with discussions about this relationship being almost non-existent. However, we did find that there are several overlapping narratives that suggest reasons for why this gap exists.
Overall, Indigenous voices are excluded from urban planning, perpetuated by a neoliberal colonialist jurisdictional legacy that reinforces stereotypes about urban Indigenous peoples as not authentic, lacking, and vulnerable. Indigenous knowledge is largely ignored unless it is culturally palatable and harnessed for use in cultural naming or public service ceremonies. In relation to climate change—while a vast literature about urban climate impacts and adaptation exists—Indigenous experience of, and contribution to, these two topics is limited. Where it does occur, it articulates Indigenous climate-related health issues, reinforcing ideas of Indigenous vulnerability rather than agency. Ultimately, different ontological frames around climate change, urban planning, adaptation, health, and vulnerability erase Indigenous presence in cities. However, some studies did begin the task of considering how to build Indigenous agency in urban settings, recommending eco-colonialist and kincentric approaches to do so.
This paper does not seek to make any prescriptions around how Indigenous peoples’ experiences of climate change in cities should be charted or, indeed, if specific targeted adaptations or actions are needed. Yet, research into Indigenous peoples’ experience of climate change in urban settings may find that urban Indigenous experience is unique and/or that Indigenous knowledge approaches can offer insights into how to develop strong and robust urban adaptation—for everyone—based on Indigenous knowledge and ways of being. To do so, the first step is establishing forums and opportunities for them to participate equally in decision-making in climate and other policies: to overturn urban nullius.

Author Contributions

M.N.-B., led the paper, wrote the first good draft and oversaw the writing and editing process; M.P., contributed additional text and undertook extensive re-writing of parts; A.G., wrote the first review that provided the basis of the initial paper and also wrote some additional text and provided editing support to drafts. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This paper is not derived from any funding per se, but it was supported by the University of Adelaide and University of Auckland, respectively, in terms of administrative support.

Data Availability Statement

Not applicable.


We would like to acknowledge Dmitri Akers for his excellent editing support on this paper.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Table 1. Summary of search terms and results for data collection.
Table 1. Summary of search terms and results for data collection.
Search TermNumbers Read from Items Derived across the Three Databases
Indigenous and urban and climate change17
Indigenous health and cities and climate change25
Indigenous peoples, urban planning, climate change14
Items in common across all searches26
Colonisation, Indigenous peoples, climate change, urban20
Total reviewed99
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Nursey-Bray, M.; Parsons, M.; Gienger, A. Urban nullius? Urban Indigenous People and Climate Change. Sustainability 2022, 14, 10830.

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Nursey-Bray M, Parsons M, Gienger A. Urban nullius? Urban Indigenous People and Climate Change. Sustainability. 2022; 14(17):10830.

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Nursey-Bray, Melissa, Meg Parsons, and Ariane Gienger. 2022. "Urban nullius? Urban Indigenous People and Climate Change" Sustainability 14, no. 17: 10830.

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