Recreating Tokelau: Distilling the Essence of Place in a Community Center

Recreating Tokelau: Distilling the Essence of Place in a Community Center

Jacqueline McIntosh (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand), Philippe Campays (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand) and Dr. Fabricio Chicca (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8568-0.ch004


This chapter discusses a specific grassroots initiative of an economically disadvantaged Pacific Island community from Tokelau who has been displaced to New Zealand. To retain their island culture, community members sought to develop a centre as a source of their empowerment, one which would ‘capture the essence of a Tokelau village'. They invited the School of Architecture at the University of Wellington to assist with its development. The guiding principles of this empowerment project are grassroots participation, mutual decision-making and shared implementation. The application of these principles is particularly befitting to participatory design methods. Despite some challenges, a number of benefits from this community's project can be cited. These include the strengthening of their sense of community, preservation of aspects of culture and a collective shared vision for the future. The fundamental idea here is that communities need to be able to seek, and receive help that empowers them rather than being offered potentially subsuming interventions. This was achieved through the development of trust between the university research team and the members of the Tokelau community. The opportunity for the university students and the Tokelau youth to engage and learn from each other were part of unanticipated additional outcomes.
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Increasingly many Pacific Island communities have to leave their homeland for other countries due to the effects of climate change, such as extreme weather events, rising sea levels and the subsequent economic impacts (Barnett & Adger, 2003; Brautigan & Woolcock, 2001). Tokelau, a nation composed of three small atolls in the middle of the South Pacific (see Figure 1) is one of those affected and has seen a steady exodus from its shores. Commencing after a significant hurricane in 1965 and continuing until 1992, New Zealand established a resettlement program to reduce food shortages and population pressure in the atolls (Brautigan & Woolcock, 2001). To date more than 70% of the population of Tokelau have elected to relocate to New Zealand, itself a South Pacific nation with a tradition of Polynesian immigration. This trend of migration is ongoing. Between 2011 and 2013 the Tokelau population remaining in Tokelau decreased by a further 2% (Tokelau National Statistics Office, 2013).

Figure 1.

Map of Tokelau

The new immigrants’ traditional ways of living have been challenged by a shift from extremely isolated, densely populated atolls with their collective cultures and multigenerational living to the temperate/cool climate of New Zealand, with its sprawling suburban neighbourhoods of nuclear family housing. It has been argued that when traditional ways of living are challenged, communities often become disempowered and the culture that binds the community together is put at risk. The Pacific Island community from Tokelau that was transplanted to New Zealand faces these threats of loss of language, history and cultural practices.

Murdock and Wilson (1972) propose that the differences between life in Tokelau and New Zealand are visibly encoded in the environment at a number of levels, as illustrated in the Table 1.

Table 1.
Comparison of key settlement factors between New Zealand and Tokelau
TokelauNew Zealand
FamilyExtended family, often large (e.g. 8 – 12)
Multi-generational household
Visitors/relatives stay weeks/months
Nuclear family, usually small e.g. 2 – 4
One or two-generation household
Visitors/relatives stay hours/days
House and siteSelf/family built or community built
One multi-use main space
Modest traditional design
Lower level of individual privacy
Hygiene and cooking facilities separate from the house
Contracted construction
Multiple rooms with defined functions
Extravagant style-driven design
High level of individual privacy
Hygiene and cooking facilities within the house
Land managementCommunity or collective ownership
Communal places are fence-protected
Informal paths and tracks
Rectangular site, defined boundary
Communal spaces are not fenced
Rectilinear gritted/geometric streets
CommunityCooperative work
Ceremonies involve community
Community integrated by kin ties
Community is people focused
Largest structure is for assembly
Communal food gathering
Single head/leader, but collective governance
Individualized or contracted work
Ceremonies tend to be private functions
Community is not integrated by kin ties
Community is place–focused
Largest structure is for commerce
Private gardens mostly decorative
Arms-length central council leadership, representative governance

(Adapted from Murdock and Wilson, 1972).

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