Far North Queensland is as far north as you can go within mainland Australia. Due to its proximity to the equator, the region’s climate, culture, environment and flora bear more similarities to Papua New Guinea than to other parts of Australia. It makes sense then that Cairns-based practice JNP Pawsey & Prowse focuses on projects in China and Oceania. In 2009 the practice won the Queensland AILA Planning Award for Excellence for the Paiam township (located in the Porgera district of the Enga province in central PNG). The Paiam settlement was created in the 1990s to service the Porgera Gold Mine, and the new township has been developed in association with the current operators, the Porgera Joint Venture. The settlement sits on one edge of a tapering valley and will house over four hundred staff who come from all over PNG.
Paiam is located in a remote jungle location at 2,200 metres altitude in the equatorial highlands where, says Prowse, “waterfalls appear to be falling from the sky.” It has consistent annual rainfall of 3,600 millimetres with the annual climate ranging from 9-110C at night to 19-210C during the day. To gain an idea of how remote the area is, outside contact was not made until the 1960s, while one third of the world’s languages are in PNG, indicating the isolation of the different tribal groups.
“To date, most mining staff fly directly to and from the mine for work periods, and locals felt this limited the flow of local benefits from the mine economy,” Prowse says. Since this practice was restricted, more employees have been encouraged to live locally, resulting in the mine operators developing a geophysical and planning study of the site in 1997. In 1998, JNP Pawsey & Prowse was engaged to develop the masterplan for a “more liveable and sustainable town, and to produce material that would effectively convey that information to stakeholders.” Taking the lead role in the consultants design group, the practice worked with the town management group association, Paiam Management Company, and the company then operating the site, Placer Dome (Barrick Gold acquired Placer Dome in 2006). As part of the process, JNP Pawsey & Prose prepared hand-drawn images that the local people could relate to, rather than standard planning documentation. The pictures and artist’s impressions reflected local culture and incorporated the locals’ aspirations for modern dwellings within a tribal cluster model.
Prowse noted how the designers needed to look at the “town’s livability, urban form, aesthetics and the opportunities for economic, social and cultural development.” The projects that evolved from the masterplan range from essential service infrastructure to markets, a promenade, a town centre, housing, botanic gardens, sports and tourism facilities and a resource centre. The design of the community market complex was notable “for its use of local materials and building technologies suited to local resources.” An Economic Sustainability Study was undertaken to investigate alternative commercial activities for the area once the mine has closed. This is a significant aspect of the sustainability of the project and the local landowner’s concerns that the place does not become a ghost town.
When you appreciate what an extreme location it is, the results are even more impressive. Transporting materials to such a high altitude was a major logistical exercise. As Prowse puts, “it is long way from anywhere - it’s more or less the end of the road!” The proximity of Mount Hagen Airport in the neighbouring province allows most of the expertise to be imported directly from Cairns, but the project also relied heavily on local involvement. Prowse explains that his practice “helped set up nurseries, did plant identification sheets and also helped set up a paving manufacturing plant” within Paiam, while also establishing “indigenous plants suitable for post-mining operations and fruit trees for future income for the towns people.”
Prowse refers to the resulting township as “new tribalism: a new urban form that reconfigures a town layout into a series of village clusters.” It is loosely based on new urbanism with an emphasis on pedestrian movement and communal living. Several houses are clustered together like a traditional village and they all have verandahs that overlook communal areas, which helps with security and surveillance of the children.
The new township deviates from the existing lay out and respects the extreme geology of the area, rather than imposing a grid. As the area is prone to landslides, stable pockets of land were identified, but this was not the only factor influencing the organic layout of the housing. “Remember that this is a subsistence economy for people who normally don’t own their own housing,” says Prowse. “Typically, villagers accumulate housing materials over time and so housing is built in a very organic way with the layout following the structure of the family group.” The housing model has been since been applied to Elora Mea in the Gulf province, which JNP Pawsey & Prowse also worked on. As the client was the provincial capital, the practice was able to develop the model with variations suited to different social and family groups. Prowse explains that to do so, JNP Pawsey & Prowse worked with the local indigenous stakeholders through a series of “fabulous workshops facilitated by how well the local men orate; the workshops were very well attended as good oration is part of tribal pride.”
JNP Pawsey & Prowse’s work in PNG is an expression of just how far-reaching landscape architecture can be. Prowse’s approach, coupled with sensitivity towards and respect for others’ value systems, reaps rewards for all parties involved and the environment.
Published online: 1 May 2010
Words: Tempe MacGowan
Landscape Architecture Australia, May 2010