September 11, 2015

To protect and preserve: The public value of conservation and preservation

Cube’s Public Value Compass describes key individual and community dimensions of public value outcomes. This blog is the fourth in a series that looks at each of these dimensions in detail. This month, we look at ‘growth and prosperity’.

Environmental sustainability and protection of our natural and physical environments are hot topics and the subject of  much debate across Australia, particularly in the context of climate change and rapid population growth.

People often have strong opinions about why we should or shouldn’t protect different parts of our natural and physical environments, making it a highly contested and often divisive issue. This division can limit our ability to have a productive and useful discussion about all the different elements, outcomes and approaches involved in protecting our environment, however it can also be useful in ensuring that there is a balance between economic priorities and environmental sustainability.

So, what exactly is conservation and preservation, and why are they important as public value outcomes?

Firstly, is there a difference between conservation and preservation?

The two words are often used interchangeably yet they actually represent two different but equally important outcomes and approaches to ensuring the physical and natural environment is protected for future generations.


Conservation is the more common approach in Australia, particularly in relation to the built environment, and is based on a belief that the community should be able to use the physical and natural environment in a way that will meet the needs of the current generation without jeopardising future generations.

Conservation supports change and adaptation of parts of the environment, a key point of contention in debates about the use of natural resources such as water and timber or the expansion of urban areas to support population growth. Timber plantations are a good example of a conservation approach where part of the original forest is traded for a sustainable wood supply to ensure the protection of the rest. Stormwater harvesting is another less contentious example of conservation, whilst usage of recycled water for human consumption continues to be debated.


Preservation is a more defined outcome with a stronger approach. It is the protection of plants and animals, natural areas, and important structures, and restoration to their original form. The actions to achieve this are similar to those required for conservation, however they are far more restrictive. This approach is demonstrated and widely supported in the protected status of National and State Parks, however creates considerable debate when applied to urban areas such as established suburbs or buildings that are no longer used. In those instances, the debate ranges from ‘nothing should ever change – no subdivisions, no changes to facades, colours, structures’ to ‘we need to find new ways to accommodate a growing population while protecting the essence of neighbourhood character’.

What are we protecting?

Given the sheer scope of this topic, it may be simpler to think of our environment in terms of the ‘natural environment’ (e.g. our rainforests, the Great Barrier Reef, our major waters and the coast) and the ‘cultural and historical environment’ (e.g. the Exhibition Building in Melbourne, the Sydney Opera House, other heritage landmarks).

When considering protection of the natural environment, a good reference point is the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), compiled annually by Yale University and Columbia University. The EPI categorises the environment by ‘Ecosystem Vitality’:

  • Climate and energy
  • Biodiversity and habitat
  • Fisheries
  • Forests
  • Agriculture
  • Water resources

And by ‘Environmental Health’:

  • Health impacts
  • Air quality
  • Water and sanitation

When we consider preservation of the ‘cultural and heritage environment’, the definitions are less established and are often open to debate. Broadly, we can split these into physical or tangible items such as historic buildings, monuments, or even objects of art or history, and non-physical and intangible items such as traditions, customs, language, and music.

Who is involved in conserving and preserving our environment?

In Australia, we have a wide range of public value organisations dedicated to all aspects of conservation and preservation.

State and local governments also have bodies responsible for protecting and conserving our physical environment – although they are often combined with the groups responsible for managing and accommodating population growth – an issue that often creates significant tension when prioritising funding.

The tools and methods employed to manage conservation and preservation of our environment are diverse. For example, governments can invest in new sustainable technologies and renewable energy sources through tax concessions or funding grants, ensure crown land and national parks are appropriately used through regulation, and generate behaviour change through education campaigns such as the highly successful Reduce Reuse Recycle and Target 150 water use campaign in Victoria.

Meanwhile community organisations advocate, lobby and educate the government to ensure that policies and programs continue to be funded or updated, they actively work to protect the natural environment through LandCare groups and local management committees, and they run community education campaigns such as Clean Up Australia Day.

Ultimately, conservation and preservation of our environment requires an ongoing discussion between the community and the government – everyone should have responsibility for protecting the things that are important to us.

How do we know if we’re succeeding?

Unlike some of the other public value outcomes, there are many different and internationally accepted ways to quantitatively measure if we are effectively protecting our environment. For example, when we consider the EPI rankings from earlier, Australia is ranked 3rd in the world, behind Switzerland (first) and Luxembourg (second). We are ranked first in the world in Health Impacts, Water and Sanitation, and Forests, with our worst performers being Agriculture (ranked 84th), Fisheries (77) and Climate and Energy (71).

Whilst quantitative measures are appropriate for the natural environment, qualitative methods are more frequently used to measure the cultural and heritage environment (or built environment). For example, neighbourhood character or community access to the natural environment are frequently used, however these measures tend to be more contested as the optimal outcomes can be subjective and need to be negotiated by governments, community organisations and the broader population.

Conservation and preservation in Australia

Ensuring that our physical and natural environments are managed sustainably so that current and future generations will be able to use and enjoy them into the future is an essential public value outcome. While Australia has made progress in many areas, there is still considerable room for improvement, particularly in responding to new and emerging challenges to our environment.

What do you think about Australia’s approach to conservation and preservation? Do we have the balance right? Are we better at protecting the natural or physical environment?

Please share your thoughts in the comments below, or reach out to anyone of us at Cube to continue the discussion!

Share this article