Sustainability Certification of Neighbourhoods: Experience from DGNB New Urban Districts in Denmark

By Jesper Ole Jensen

With increasing urbanization and political ambitions to reduce the environmental impact of cities, urban leaders are faced with immense challenges. The pursuit of CO2 reduction has left other sustainability targets somehow overlooked, but not less relevant. This includes environmental issues such as water supply, management of rainwater, transport and the localization and production/protection of green areas. It also includes social sustainability issues such as how to ensure a balanced mix of both residential and other land uses, how to integrate meeting places in the city and to allow a sharing of facilities. Important economic issues also include considerations of how an urban development influences the city economy. One planning tool that has recently emerged to help planners balance these sustainability issues is neighbourhood certification schemes, including the DGNB [1] New Urban Districts certification scheme.

This article describes the first steps in testing and implementing the DGNB New Urban Districts certification scheme for sustainable urban neighbourhoods in Denmark. The certification scheme assesses the degree of sustainability of a neighbourhood, and rewards those neighbourhoods with a gold, silver or bronze rating. Ideally, such visualization of area-based sustainability can provide different actors with important information about the area. For municipalities and developers it can be a way to visualize, maximize and prioritize various sustainability issues; for investors it can provide assurance that the area holds a certain sustainability standard, making it attractive for future investments. The certification aims at making sustainability explicit and allows for consistent benchmarking across areas, making it clearer what is meant when a neighbourhood development plan is labelled 'sustainable'.

From buildings to neighbourhoods

Using a certification scheme for assessing the sustainability of entire neighbourhoods is relatively new in Denmark as well as in the rest of Scandinavia. It can be seen as a direct development of the tools used for assessing the sustainability of buildings, which were developed through the 1980s and 1990s, many of which are currently being used internationally and in the Scandinavian countries. In recent years, international building assessment tools such as BREEAM (U.K.) and LEED (U.S.) have developed their own version of Neighbourhood Sustainability Assessment (NSA): BREEAM Communities and LEED-ND (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighbourhood Development). Tools for NSA also exist, including CASBEE-UD (Comprehensive Assessment System for Building Environmental Efficiency for Urban Development) in Japan, and Green Star Communities in Australia. The majority of these NSA tools can be categorized as 'spin-off tools' (Sharif & Murayama, 2012), meaning that they stem from third-party building certification schemes.

In Denmark, as well as in other Scandinavian countries, there has been an increasing interest in using international certification schemes for buildings and neighbourhoods as a supplement to national building regulations. Instead of developing national schemes, Denmark and Sweden have utilized existing international certification schemes after forming national Green Building Councils. The Danish Green Building Council decided to use the German DGNB certification tool for buildings and neighbourhoods, in competition with LEED, BREEAM and the French HQE, because it is the newest scheme, and therefore reflects the latest European standards for sustainability assessment. DGNB also prioritizes all three sustainability aspects– social, economic and environmental – but most importantly, it includes the possibility of developing a locally adapted version for the Danish context, which would not have been possible with LEED or BREEAM.


The DGNB New Urban Districts scheme assesses the neighbourhood on five parameters: environmental quality, economic quality, socio-cultural and functional quality, technical quality and process quality. These are divided into subgroups that include a number of different evaluation parameters, e.g., the amount and quality of public spaces and 'placemaking' in the area, the area's contribution to the municipal economy, the involvement of local actors in the development plan, the social and functional mix in the area and many others. Each of the parameters has different weights, leading to a total score (as a percentage) that defines the grade of sustainability (see Figure 1). The certification can also be conducted at three different stages of the development cycle, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 1: The DGNB Urban Districts scoring system

Figure 1. The DGNB Urban Districts scoring system.Figure 2: Certification at various stages of the development process

Figure 2. Certification at various stages of the development process.

The Danish experience

The adaptation of DGNB New Urban Districts in Denmark consists of two stages: a) a pilot test of the original criteria in four development areas, and b) a process of adapting the criteria to a Danish context. In the pilot test, the German criteria from the DGNB New Urban Districts were used directly in four development areas. Table 1 outlines the main characteristics of the areas and the results of certification. In figure 3 the scores are illustrated in comparison with the other projects having received a sustainability certification through DGNB New Urban Districts. The four areas have been pre-qualified and they are all long-term development areas, with a time horizon of 10–30 years before being fully developed.

Figure 3: Sustainability scores for the 23 urban districts with a DGNB certificate (at 28.11.2013), including the four Danish projects (in red).

Figure 3. Sustainability scores for the 23 urban districts with a DGNB certificate (at 28.11.2013), including the four Danish projects (in red). Click to view larger image.

Table 1. The four Danish test areas for DGNB Urban Districts certification

Certification has led to only limited changes in the lay-out and design of the areas, because most of the four areas were planned before they entered the certification process. Instead, it has mainly been used to document the degree of sustainability of the projects and highlight strengths and weaknesses in their respective sustainability concepts (Table 1).

The users of DGNB have evaluated the process and highlighted different pros and cons of the system. The main dilemma concerns the high degree of details in data documentation, which increases credibility and legitimacy but also requires significant resources (typically 30–40 days for the auditor of each area); this makes it difficult to provide a concise and transparent overview of scores, particularly to those actors who are not familiar with the scheme. The scheme's ambition to encompass both breadth and depth of sustainability issues is also seen as a somewhat different approach from development plans, where typically a limited number of sustainability issues are highlighted.

During the second stage of the process, taking place from early 2014, the DGNB criteria will be adapted to the Danish context. The work will be carried out by a number of volunteer experts (consultants, researchers, municipal planners, etc.) working in groups on different themes. The process of discussing and adapting each of the DGNB criteria to a Danish context will potentially make the DGNB New Urban District scheme a condensed collection of knowledge and best practice on urban sustainability in Denmark, thereby serving not only as a certification tool, but also as a reference tool for future sustainable urban development.


The idea of sustainability certification is a promising planning tool to aid the development of sustainable cities but it is too early to say what future role the DGNB New Urban District scheme will have in Denmark. The pilot test of the four areas provides a picture of a systematic but also rather resource-intensive tool. However, the final adaptation process is an opportunity to make the criteria and the process leaner, allowing for closer integration with existing planning procedures. Furthermore, an increasing diffusion into the market will make relevant actors more familiar with the system, and enable an earlier adaptation of the criteria in the planning process and thereby a smoother integration.

International experience with LEED-ND and BREEAM Communities shows that institutional support and encouragement from central and local authorities to use the tool have been important for diffusion. For example, some local authorities in the U.K. demand BREEAM Communities certification in all major developments in the municipality (Sharif and Murayama, 2012). With the pilot tests completed, and the final adaptation process to take place, there will be many opportunities to look for ways to integrate the certification criteria in existing legislation, regulation and practices for sustainable urban development.

[1] Deutsche Gesellschaft für Nachhaltiges Bauen (German Society for Sustainable Building)


Back to Nordregio News Issue 1, 2014