Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea


In 1975, Port Moresby became capital of an independent Papua New Guinea. Originally the centre for Australian colonial administration, it was not until after independence with the departure of most of the Australians that Port Moresby became a majority Melanesian city. Port Moresby was a tough city to live in then, and is still a tough city, particularly for women.

In ontological terms, the reality is that over the last generation or so the Melanesian customary layer of the city has been slowly relegated to occasional festivals, and to the informal settlements and tribal urban villages. The face of the city has been remodelled by new modern developments: national plans, asphalt roads, concrete buildings and modern regimes of power. Across the mid-to-late 1970s, traffic accidents, for example, accounted for over half of all traumatic fatalities in Port Moresby General Hospital.

Two decades later, the 1995 Poreporena Freeway project became the most obvious signifier of the modern overlay. Amid allegations of abuse about government contracts, it bisected the city, cutting through a mountain from Waigani to the downtown area and saving twenty minutes on the road trip between two centres of power — political and commercial. Expressed in modern geological terms, the freeway cut through ‘an accretionary prism above a late Eocene–Oligocene NE-dipping subduction system’. But in customary terms it also cut through the land of the Motu Koitabu people. Today, nearly three decades after independence, the city is going through a new stage of frantic building funded by a natural-gas mining boom. Five-star hotels are being constructed, roads are being resurfaced, and local urban villages are being modernized.

The demands of rapid uncontrolled migration and the lack of affordable housing and other infrastructure have seen the growth and overcrowding of the city’s informal settlements. According to the 2000 census, 53,000 of Port Moresby’s residents lived in the settlements, a number which has undoubtedly drastically increased since then. Recently, UN-Habitat estimated that 45 per cent of the city’s residents live in settlements. Of these settlements, twenty are planned and seventy-nine are unplanned; forty-two are located on state land; and thirty-seven are on customary land. The settlements often lack even the most basic amenities and infrastructure such as sanitation, water, and electricity. The government response to these problems has been inadequate: there is no ministry devoted to dealing with settlement issues. This is an arrangement dating back to a policy change in 1986 that deregulated housing development.

From a more positive perspective, Port Moresby is a city of small urban communities with grounded-community connections stretching to their rural relatives. It is a city of villages, a meeting place of cultures, a tropical capital located on the eastern coast of the beautiful Port Moresby Harbour. Overall, the complexity of Port Moresby is attributable to myriad factors including the Australian colonial legacy, vast wealth inequalities, intense movements of people, high rates of formal unemployment, a variably sustaining informal sector, ongoing destabilization of customary ways of life, and rising tensions between ethnic groups.

Port Moresby was established on the traditional lands of two inter-related peoples now known collectively as the Motu-Koita. The growth of housing settlements, infrastructure and industry in the city has led the Motu-Koita to feel acute social marginalization and deep anxiety about losing their cultural identity and land. This provides a point of entry for our work on what can be called ‘ontological design’ for sustainability.

The indigenous villages and the urban settlements of Port Moresby could become the focus of a revitalization of the city. This will require a cultural and political reinvigoration of social engagement in those settlements, and it will be much more than just an infrastructure and technology exercise. Nevertheless, some planning steps can be laid out, all of which presume considerable community representation and negotiation using deliberative democracy processes. The Process Circle is designed to support such engagement.

Towards Ontological Design

Current planning practices are inadequate to the task of remaking Port Moresby sustainable. However, paradoxically, a version of modern planning, including all its legislated restrictions and exclusions, is necessary to bring settlement patterns back into more integral relationship with nature. This would require restraints, formerly in place, that have not been carried forward from indigenous customary cultures concerning, for example, where houses can be built. Regulations to stop any further building on the hills above the city or into the littoral zone along the coastline would be part of this process. The Poreporena-Napa Local Development Plan (2011) mentions the possibility of not building above the ninety-metre contour as ‘an identifying element for the city’, but an ontological design proposal would offer something much more radical than an aesthetic design element. It would be less tokenistic.

Except in the immediate downtown area, the sloping hills above, say, fifty metres would need to be returned to a mixture of urban vegetable gardening and open eucalypt woodland forests, with green fingers stretching down into the valleys in ways that allow walking and limited vehicle access. In the valleys, some land should ideally be zoned for urban agriculture, integrated with urban housing estates. Land-use would need to be negotiated with the Motu-Koita, the original custodians of the land, and it would require considerable care about how plots of agricultural land were allocated and woodlands were set aside.

Filling in the Fairfax Harbour with land-fill projects for yacht clubs and refineries is not ontologically sensitive design. The limits of natural boundaries, including coastlines, are important. Indigenous urban villages on the coast such as Hanubada, presently built stretching out over the harbour, would need to be spatially limited so that they do not consume any more waterfront space. More importantly, industrial waterfront developments should be restricted to allow substantial green ribbons along the foreshore, crossed with public walking paths. Re-establishing mangrove ecosystems along the coastline needs to be a priority, both for practical reasons of responding to possible storm surges with climate change and for re-establishing a deep sense of nature as more than a standing reserve for human exploitation. Extensive community engagement and support are crucial to these processes. The changes will also require policing of the use of mangroves and trees for firewood, and the installation of appropriately scaled and distributed sewerage and waste-water systems to stop the massive outflow that currently goes into the bay.

Turning to the genealogical valence of customary relations, the importance of cultural identity and engagement of family, language, tribe and region come to the fore, and what needs to be done is far from easy. The ‘city of villages’ is associated with tension and violence.

It has become increasingly recognized that Port Moresby is tied by lines of deep genealogical connection back to the rural villages as far away as the Kerema, Mount Hagen or Alatou districts. However, what is to be done about this remains completely perplexing for mainstream planning. Such genealogical relations could be brought into the centre of Port Moresby public life by instituting a calendar of events that recognize urban-village ties. Exchange and trading relations between such places could be brought to the fore, for example, through negotiating spaces in designated open-air, sheltered food markets. There are some important examples currently such as Koki Market, but the construction of modern malls and supermarkets is increasing (with all the increased prices for basic goods that this entails).

Across the city, land needs to be set aside near major transport nodes for farmers’ markets that are built into the urban fabric, designed with open stalls, but sheltered from the sun and monsoonal rain under two-to-four storey buildings, offering increased residential density. The mix of street-accessibility, open-air ground-floor spaces, and increased residential density in otherwise commercial or dead zones, would enhance both the vitality and street security of the city.

Handled badly, this has potentially dangerous consequences for ethnic conflict. Thus the negotiation of the use of space would need to be linked at the highest level to the symbolic politics of negotiation between different customary groups who are currently at odds with each other. While urban villages will tend to remain more culturally homogenous, contestation over these public spaces could sources of positive diversity. This brings us to the rich relation between social practice and oral expressions of what that practice means, expressed through stories, art, images, building design, festivals, public rituals, and street symbolism.

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