Jym Clark, a planner at the Ministry for the Environment, recently spent several months at the Indigenous Design and Planning Institute at the University of New Mexico, on a Harkness Fellowship. The purpose of the fellowship is to reinforce New Zealand-United States links by enabling aspiring leaders to benefit from new ideas, practices and contacts in the US.

Here he shares some insights drawn from that experience.

The thinking around resilience has been there for a long time, right, it’s just not written in policy. It’s there in the practice and the kōrero.

I think society is catching up with where Indigenous people have been for a long time. Indigenous people have a strong connection with the past. Any population that lives somewhere long enough will understand what the land is capable of, and the environment around it. That deep knowledge gives you that perspective. For example, in Aotearoa we build settlements – and we’re still doing this to a degree – only using data from the last hundred years. But that doesn’t tell you what’s happened in the last 500 years, where the flood risks or other risks lie.

In terms of Indigenous-led climate initiatives, can you describe some which are going well, either here or in the US?

There’s a great list of tribal-led climate actions. My first thought goes to Aotearoa, to Maketu (Bay of Plenty), and the work the community is doing there. It’s led by the local marae, but they’re doing it for the whole community, to look at ways to make their community more resilient in the face of climate change. They’ve put together a strategy document, really the first step in how the community can work together to build the resilience of the area. They didn’t wait for the Western Bay of Plenty District Council to initiate it. They just initiated it themselves and did the work.

But if I jump to the United States, there’s a lot of that that goes on there too within tribal reservation lands, including in New Mexico. In the instance of flooding this is a push to get housing up to higher ground finally. In Alaska they’re having to do that too. There are settlements which are very close to the coast. Also in Hawaii we’ve seen that. In California and other parts of the South-West, Indigenous groups are leading prescribed burns, to try to reduce the impacts of future wildfire. That’s sometimes known as ‘cultural burning’, using Indigenous knowledge to manage fire risk.

I think that’s one of my findings from being in the United States, that because of the breadth and depth of the issues involved in climate adaptation, you really do need to support community efforts, because governments alone, or governments trying to direct communities what to do, isn’t going to be sufficient, and may not work because of community resistance at times to thinking that they have to adapt or change or not live here or have to live there.

What’s special do you think, about the way that planners engage with iwi. What’s particular about that lens?

The unique role of planners is that planners often work in place. They work in consultancies and in government departments, but they’re dealing with projects on the ground. They’re dealing with place-based projects. Iwi and hapū are in their place too – they have a kaitiaki role, a stewardship role in those places. And I think planners can share that same view, just their approaches may be different.

You’ve talked about social infrastructure as being in some ways more important than physical infrastructure – would you like to speak about that?

Yeah – that’s a complex one because it’s not just about the social infrastructure of communities, but also the social resilience. Communities that have less advantages are more likely to be affected by a severe weather event because they lack the resources to be able to take care of themselves directly. We really do need to think about how people are going to work together in a severe weather event, rather than just having a structure that’s going to protect them. We’re not going to be able to afford to do hard infrastructure everywhere. So that means things like having resiliency hubs. I met with a community in Hawai’i who have a community in a low-lying area on the island of O’ahu, and they’re very susceptible to storm surge, or a tsunami for that matter. They’ve secured some land from the state government, which is higher up, and they’re now working on plans to build a hub there. The hub is a piece of infrastructure, but that’s just part of it, it’s really about having everyone connected together, working on a plan together.

Going back to the Harkness Fellowship, what do you see as a benefit from this exchange, in terms of your impact on the Public Service?

It is really hard to measure these things, but I’m doing presentations over the next few months. I recently spoke at The New Zealand Planning Institute conference in Kirikiriroa (Hamilton). I’ll also be doing that at Te Wananga o Aotearoa, and here at the Auckland Policy Office, which has a number of agencies all under one roof, and to my ministry colleagues as well.

I’ve been maintaining my connections back to New Mexico, with the Indigenous planners. We’re working towards hosting a global Indigenous Planners Conference in Aotearoa in 2025 or 2026. It will be mostly North American planners but there will be others who’ll come to the symposium, to see what we’re doing in Aotearoa.

Applications for the 2024 Harkness fellow have now closed. Read more about the programme here.