Ecology of community

Dr James Berghan at graduation. Photo: Kate Herdman.

Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities: He Kāinga Whakamana Tangata, Whakamana Taiao (BBHTC) was pleased to invest in a PhD scholarship to allow James Berghan (Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri) to complete his important mahi on social tenure. In 2020, James successfully defended his PhD thesis at Otago University and is now officially Dr James Berghan. He is now also a Lecturer in Urban Design in the School of Surveying, at the University of Otago – the first Māori academic to join the school.

Dr Berghan’s PhD studies social (or communal) tenure – a system of rights which are based on social norms, processes, and relationships.

“Social tenures are a feature of many Indigenous cultures, where land and resources are managed from a collectivist, rather than an individualist, standpoint,” says James.

“For instance, in New Zealand, Māori society was traditionally based around territorial tribal living, with hapū (sub-tribes) controlling and defending particular territories.

“Western governance ushered in by Te Tiriti o Waitangi eroded this form of living by favouring individualised land tenure, and individualised tenure, private ownership and commodification have since tended to dominate the literature on housing and property.

“A danger of individualised systems is that they often separate land rights from social connections, responsibilities and relationships – you can be an unpleasant neighbour without compromising individual property rights. This begs the question of whether there are ways in which elements of socially-based tenure can be reintroduced within a contemporary context.”

James conducted a series of in-depth interviews, spatial analyses and field observations, to investigate socially-based tenure and how they are embodied in urban papakāinga (Māori housing) and cohousing communities.

“I worked with case studies in Auckland and overseas to capture the lived experiences of residents in modern developments which are emulating such features, which included urban papakāinga but also co-housing as well. During my PhD, I was fortunate enough to visit the world’s oldest co-housing community just north of Copenhagen in Denmark, as well as others in Sweden and the Netherlands. I met a Māori woman in Copenhagen who had been living in a co-housing community for twelve years, and she could validate a lot of similarities between her experiences of living in that community to those of traditional pā living.

“Despite differing origins, papakāinga and cohousing models share goals of enacting social facilitation, cohesion and whanaungatanga (relationships). So, a dialogue between the two models has merit in uncovering common lessons, as well as for identifying areas of tension and uniqueness.”

James’s thesis makes an original contribution to knowledge as the first in-depth study exploring the similarities and differences of urban papakāinga and cohousing models, and highlights the diversity of residents’ lived experiences. This diversity suggests a regionality or specificity of community outcomes, beset by a few core, potentially universal, principles.

His work has the potential to inform the wider New Zealand planning and housing debate, and to inform future housing development in our cities, both by Māori and non-Māori, in more socially-connected ways.

James’s thesis was placed on Otago University’s list of ‘Exceptional Theses’ for 2020 (Division of Sciences) – this honour is reserved for when a thesis is deemed of exceptional quality by the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the relevant Division and with the unanimous recommendation of all three examiners of the thesis.

Read the research

Berghan, J. (2020). Ecology of community: Exploring principles of socially-based tenure in urban papakāinga and cohousing communities (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy). University of Otago. Retrieved November 10, 2021 from

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Date posted: 20 December 2021