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Clarence Slockee
Photograph: Supplied/Clarence Slockee

Time Out's Sustainability Future Shaper: Clarence Slockee

The Time Out team talk to the exceptional individuals moulding the future of Sydney

By Elizabeth McDonald and Maxim Boon
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Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Sydney in this Future Shaper series. These remarkable individuals and organisations were nominated by a panel of expert judges including editor of Time Out Sydney Maxim Boon, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong, head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House Edwina Throsby, NSW 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues, CEO of IndigiLab Luke Briscoe, and NIDA resident director David Berthold. Read more about the project here.

Based on Gadigal land, proud Mindjingbal-Bundjalung man and landscape architect Clarence Slockee has spent a lifetime advancing his knowledge of native bush food and Indigenous agricultural practices. Since establishing Jiwah, a First Nations owned and operated company specialising in Cultural landscape design, he's been using his deep understanding of native plant life to green urban environments in sustainable and culturally informed ways.

He is one of the co-creators of the South Eveleigh Community Rooftop Garden, Sydney’s first urban farm and garden dedicated to indigenous flora, where you'll find many types of bush produce. Opened in 2019, it was the first of several native green spaces created by Slockee and his team that can now be found throughout the recently completed South Eveleigh dining precinct.

Slockee first developed his deep affinity with the plant world growing up on his family's farm, and he also spent several years as an education officer at the Royal Botanic Gardens, where his work involved the education and promotion of Aboriginal culture and native plant species. Fans of the ABC's Garding Australia, in which Slockee has been regularly featured, have been benefiting from his green-fingered know-how for more than a decade.

Through Jiwah, Slockee aims to disrupt the way green spaces in the urban environment are devised by shifting the focus to more sustainable practices that are both groundbreaking and rooted in ancient cultural practices. His vision champions principles of Indigenous knowledge, collaborative design, permaculture and biodiveristy that create and maintain green spaces that aren’t merely decorative, but that contribute to a more sustainable, environmentally conscious and responsible society, that gives more to Country than it takes.

Follow Jiwah here: @jiwah.au

You’ve described your Eveleigh rooftop garden, which transformed and reclaimed an otherwise unused urban space, as a prototype for how other businesses could transform their own unused spaces. Have you seen an increased interest in this kind of initiative since establishing it in 2019?

There are certainly a lot of green roofs, walls and facades incorporated in built spaces everywhere. Here in Australia, there have been a lot of people leading the way for green infrastructure and some incredible innovations in relation to hardscape elements. The Eveleigh rooftop has been a prototype for what can be achieved using native plant species in softscape [the ways plants are incorporated into a space] design. There has been an increased interest in native species generally and this has transferred to spaces such as green roofs.

Why is it important that Indigenous ingredients enter the mainstream in an environmental and culturally sensitive way?

Native species are intrinsic to the Australian bush and their importance to local plant communities and ecological systems are taken for granted to a certain degree. We all rely on native plant species within an environmental context. The interest in native ingredients is in some ways a double-edged sword. It’s great to see all of the benefits that arise from that interest, yet that benefit, unfortunately, isn’t transferring to First Nations people. The ‘bushfood’ industry continues to generate millions in economic benefit only a very small percentage is transferring to Aboriginal communities. Of greater concern are issues relating to cultural and intellectual property rights of native edible and medicinal plant species.

Many people are ignorant to the kinds of foragable ingredients all around us - how can we engage more meaningfully with native ingredients in our cities?

Understanding that just because it is foragable and something useful doesn’t necessarily mean we should be taking it from the bush. The bush food industry still relies on wild source product which has ongoing implications for local native species. For people to learn more about nature, the bush and native species there can be a greater appreciation and conservation effort generally. Growing your own native edibles and incorporating foragable species into public green space can be educative, informative and delicious.

You describe the work of your company Jiwah as “cultural landscaping” that seeks to “disrupt current methodologies in green infrastructure and green space design.” Can you explain the main differences between your approach to landscaping and other commercial landscapers?

We do our best to engage with people who are going to be using the spaces we help design and encourage the use of local native species. Breaking away from the aesthetically pleasing format of patterns, lines and colours to instead attempt to mimic a more natural feel. We use as many local species as possible, really filling spaces with a wide variety of plant types to encourage biodiversity.

Why is it important to cultivate biodiversity in our cities?

I’d like to think our work is more about creating habitats as people generally can find plenty to eat and preferably grow their own. As we continue to lose remnant vegetation and bushland, we all need to do our part to at least attempt to return what is being taken. We need to think about all of the natural systems, from the tiniest organisms and microbial relationships in the soil through to insects, reptiles, birds and animals. It’s not all about we humans, we all need plants to survive, we need as much functional green space in our cities as possible. Our existence relies on the health of the natural world, and we really should try to give more than we take.

What do you see as the future of cultural landscaping in Sydney?

I’d like to think that everyone can play a part in not only beautifying but diversifying landscapes in Sydney. As new developments encroach on bushland throughout the Sydney region, I think we all have a responsibility to return as many local species as possible into the landscape. Aboriginal connection to Country has enabled the worlds’ oldest living culture to survive and thrive for tens of thousands of years. We are all connected to Country and each other, the more we can do for Mother Nature – the more she can do for us. The more people can learn about Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander culture, ways of seeing and doing; and in caring for Country the better off we’ll all be. I’d love to see buildings seamlessly blending with a landscape full of local native species rather than buildings merely dominating the landscape.

Meet the Future Shapers

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