Engaging for Planetary Health: The Painted River Project Garguree

Engaging for Planetary Health: The Painted River Project Garguree

Engaging for Planetary Health: The Painted River Project Garguree (The Gully), a case study on Gundungurra and Dharug Country in the Blue Mountains

Join us for 1 hour with Leo Robba, Associate Dean Engagement at Western Sydney University, sharing his knowledge and practice around engaging for planetary health.

Given the catastrophic bushfires in Australia in 2019-20, and subsequent devastating floods, communities are rightly concerned about their collective futures. Many people understand that we have reached a crucial point in human history and that it’s time to re-think the way we live, what we value, and how we care for the natural world.

For Indigenous people, land, culture, and health are inextricably entwined and their deep spiritual connection to their lands and waters clearly identifies that the principles and practices of planetary health and Caring for Country—doing what is good for the world—were, for millennia, well-known to them. The practices of Traditional Custodians, their relationship with Ngurra (Country), and their deeply embedded cultural knowledge provide guideposts for understanding.

Engaging for Planetary Health: 

The Painted River Project Garguree (The Gully), a case study on Gundungurra and Dharug Country in the Blue Mountains. The Gully has been formally recognised as an ‘Aboriginal Place’ and sits at the headwaters of the Upper Kedumba River Valley, in the heart of Katoomba. It is part of the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains National Park. Adding to its significance is the work underway to protect and express the cultural values of the area and support the many people who are working to rejuvenate the natural swampland.

The key aim of the Painted River Project: Garguree (The Gully) 2-year field study was to Centre Indigenous Ways of Knowing, connection, and Care for Country in a truly co-led partnership with Traditional Custodians. We did this by working with multiple disciplines across the University, partnering with local government, and with the wider community. This collaboration brought together a group of Traditional Knowledge Holders, scientists and creative practitioners, linking art, science, design, andmass communication to deepen engagement for impact.

This integrated engagement program was based on the SEED design model – Social and Ecological Engagement in Design. SEED is a novel methodology that integrates social and ecological considerations in design thinking by providing a framework to enable people to think more holistically about contemporary challenges, and to identify sustainable solutions.

The engagement program included:

  • A community event hosted by Traditional Custodians that brought together Traditional Knowledge Holders, scientists, artists and more than 200 members of the wider community. This event was the basis for a 2-hour live, state-wide, radio broadcast as part of the 2023 NAIDOC celebrations
  • The artworks produced from the field studies were showcased in a 3-month exhibition at the Margaret Whitlam Gallery,Western Sydney University
  •  This exhibition provided a platform for a Water Sensitive Urban Design Symposium, in partnership with local government, industry, and other universities.

A core component of the engagement was to integrate the methodology, public events and series of gallery talks with student curriculum, teaching and learning.

Through integrated community engagement practices the Garguree (The Gully) Painted River Project aimed to forge new relationships by enabling Tradition Custodians, diverse community members, industry and local government to collaborate and build a genuine sense of shared purpose – one that acknowledges the human place in nature and, “the nexus between nature and culture and the influence human behaviour has on living systems” identified by the eminent human ecologist Stephen Boyden to be of immense ecological importance.

About the presenter:

Dr Leo Robba is Associate Dean Engagement at Western Sydney University. He leads the highly successful Painted River Project (PRP) which is a participatory art, design and science initiative that supports communities to better value and care for our rivers systems. The PRP is founded on Planetary Health principles and makes the connection between human health and wellbeing and our interdependence on the natural world. His current design research focuses on the development Social and Ecological Engagement in Design (SEED) which is a novel methodology that provides holistic strategies for community-based eco-social change design. Robba is a leading Australian landscape artist whose artworks are represented in many public and private collections including, Parliament House, Canberra, QUT, Brisbane, Maitland Regional Gallery, Brisbane City Hall Gallery, among others.

Project team:

Western Sydney University’s Painted River Project was run in partnership with, Western Sydney Creative, Gundungurra Traditional Owners, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Blue Mountains City Council’s Planetary Health Initiative, University of Newcastle, Bank Arts Museum Moree and Urban Transformations Research Centre. The art, science and design project team comprised, Dr Leo Robba, Associate Professor Ian Wright, Dr Amy Marie Gilpin, Margaret Hancock, Kelsie King, Dr Greg Hughes, Matthew Lahoud, Sally Tsoutas, Katherine Warwick from WSU, Uncle David King (Gundungurra TO) Kim Barrett (BMCC), Holly Nettle, Professor Tony Capon (MSDI) Gillean Shaw (UoN) and Sarah Vickerman (BAMM). Feature artists included Lucy Culliton, Adrienne Richards, Chris O’Doherty
(Aka Reg Mombassa) and Euan Macleod.


This session is run as part of the Carnegie Community Engagement Network offerings.

*Please note that this session is free.


Contact us:

If you have any questions about the session or the Carnegie Community Engagement Network, please contact carnegie@engagementaustralia.org.au