The Urgent Role of Design in the Language Revitalisation Movement

A name can reveal storied landscapes, rich with wonder and the potential for reflection.

What’s in a name? In Te Ao Maori, a name can reveal much about te taiao and the history and stories bound to it. Te Wiki o Te Reo Maori language week is a great time for New Zealand design community to reflect on our part to play in the language revitalisation movement.

This year’s theme for Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori was Kia Kaha te Reo Māori – Let’s make the Māori language strong. As designers of the built world, our involvement in this movement is critical.

The use of traditional place names in urban planning, design and architecture is just one place where the industry can play its part in honouring our indigenous language, the histories of mana whenua and our unique cultural landscape here in Aotearoa.


We can see that the wheels are truly turning for change in New Zealand, pushing for Māori design considerations – with language being only one part.

And today, thanks to tireless work being done throughout the country by our indigenous talent, it is easier than ever to take steps to fully recognize, embrace, and celebrate Te Reo Māori through design.


Te Kawenata o Rata, a covenant that formalises an ongoing relationship between the New Zealand Institute of Architects and Ngā Aho, the society of Māori design professionals.


Led by Māori design professionals across the country a range of new and innovative initiatives such as the formation of The Independent Māori Statutory Board, the NZIA signing of Te Kawenata o Rata, the Auckland Unitary Plan, and the introduction of Te Aranga Māori Design Principles are at our fingertips.

Te Aranga Design Principles are particularly relevant when considering the power of names in design. One of six of their design principles is whakapapa. It acknowledges that a further layer of meaning can be added to our landscape by celebrating the significance of mana whenua ancestral names, whose stories and histories go back 800 years. Providing opportunities for both designers and mana whenua to appropriately honour and explore the richness of historical narratives and customary practices associated to specific sites within the built environment are central to this principle.

Even more, the lack of knowledge associated with Maori cultural sites, features and landscapes in Auckland results in the continued threat of degradation and destruction of the values associated with our Maori cultural heritage from the adverse effects of subdivision, use and development. Indeed, the power of whakapapa and name in design has as much to do with sustainability as it does with reo Māori.


We’ve seen this being made a priority with the Auckland Unitary Plan. Beginning in 2018 the Auckland City Council began the process of renaming parks and places across Tāmaki Makaurau with Māori names. This initiative was part of Te Kete Rukuruku, which involved the collection and telling of unique stories of Auckland, and place names were found to be central to honouring these stories.

This was also sparked by the realization that only 8 per cent of parks and places in Auckland formally recognized their Māori names through visible signage. Councillor Penny Hulse said, “This program aims to significantly increase that and provide a platform to reclaim and celebrate our Māori identity and history. . . some of which has been long lost over many years.”

From the experiences of Te Kete Rukuruku, the journey in working with iwi in recognising Māori place names, it’s about much more than just names too, project manager Anahera Higgins emphasises. The stories emerging from the research process into names so far been “rich and varied”, and will be told in ways far more complex than simply words on a sign.

Through this work, one thing certain: a name can reveal our storied landscapes, rich with wonder and potential for reflection.

Kupu Māori: Māori Word key

Te Ao Māori – The Māori world

Te Taiao – The natural world

Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori – Māori Language week

Tāmaki Makaurau – Auckland

Mana whenua – Māori with traditional territorial rights over an area.

Author: BOON