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Sustainability Assessment Systems for New and Existing Neighbourhoods

p. 27-42

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1 Starting Points

1When it comes to analysis of issues associated with the implementation of sustainability in the construction sector, an increasing focus on planning, management and assessment of the sustainability of human settlements (including urban districts and neighbourhoods) is noticeable. This issue is currently approached from two standpoints. On one hand, sustainability oriented urban development is usually part of national sustainability strategies; this is the case in Germany (cf. FGG 2002, p. 17). The necessary planning, management and assessment of sustainable urban development is a response to the growing importance of cities and the dramatic increase in their populations compared to the global population. Considering that the influence and control of sustainable urban development is a complex task, one approach is to subdivide the “city” system into smaller units and to involve local stakeholders in the development of these units, not only as people affected by this phenomenon, but also as actors or co-creators. This leads, among other results, to active engagement with the issue of sustainable neighbourhood development. This concept is built on the traditions of the Local Agenda 21 (cf. Keating 1993).

2On the other hand, an intensive examination of the planning, management and assessment of the sustainability of individual buildings has been taking place over the last years. This movement has resulted in the development of several building sustainability assessment and certification systems (cf. Ebert et al. 2011, pp. 30-75). To respond to the need for addressing complex issues related to groups of buildings and neighbourhoods (e.g. optimal energy supply design, design of outdoor space and environment), there are attempts around the globe to expand the boundaries of these systems.

3It is clear that the neighbourhood can be approached as the object of assessment both from the point of view of sustainable urban development and in terms of the further development and adaptation of sustainability assessment methods and tools for individual buildings including the urban scale. This paper examines which specific features a) characterise the neighbourhood as the object of assessment and b) how tools and systems for planning, managing and assessing the sustainability of neighbourhood design (in the absolute sense of a performance measurement) and the sustainable development of existing neighbourhoods (in terms of process-related support by target systems and performance monitoring) respond to these tasks and features.

1.1 New and Existing Neighbourhoods as the Object of Assessment – Barriers

4The neighbourhood represents a meso-level of analysis and action between the city (and its parts) and individual structures, buildings, or groups of buildings. Unlike cities and individual buildings, neighbourhoods display no clear references to institutional and administrative boundaries. This complicates the definition and demarcation of neighbourhoods which can be made from a spatial, social, administrative, or contextual perspective. Spatial system boundaries are adjusted to fit the characteristics of specific criteria (including energy supply, trade, mobility, identity/sense of community). Very heterogeneous groups of actors are involved in neighbourhood development, some of which operate in informal (e.g. Local Agenda 21) or formal (e.g. property owners’associations) networks. Neighbourhoods exhibit no static state, but instead are always in permanent development. Thus, it is very difficult to describe a functional equivalent for constituting a basis for the comparison of different neighbourhood types and assessment results. On the one hand, the “function” of a neighbourhood can hardly be defined and, on the other hand, there are neighbourhoods with different characteristics (residential, mixed use, industrial area, etc.). Appropriate systems for planning, managing or assessing the sustainability of neighbourhoods or of their development must respond to these characteristics.

1.2 Existing Solutions and Experiences in Germany

5Germany has a long tradition in the field of development and application of tools for assessing sustainable urban and neighbourhood development. Among other approaches, indicator sets and systems have been developed (cf. Fuhrich 2001, pp. 13f.; Liepach et al. 2003; Spreter et al. 2004). These are used to describe goals and monitor performances and sometimes to support decisions within the framework of Local Agenda 21. Sustainable urban and neighbourhood development is a process that must be actively monitored and supported.

6Requirements for sustainable urban development, which include mostly development at the city level, are part of the National Sustainable Development Strategy in Germany initiated by the Federal Government in 2002 and followed by progress reports. Here, a focus on land use is emphasized. Comprehensive requirements are also formulated in the German Building Code (BauGB 2004). Therein, the task of urban development planning is described as follows: “The development plans shall ensure a sustainable urban development, which reconciles social, economic and environmental protection requirements with the responsibility towards future generations, and is socially fair and in the service of bettering public land use. They should help to ensure a more humane environment, to protect and develop natural resources and to promote, particularly in urban development, climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as to preserve and architecturally develop the urban form as well as that of the town and landscape” (BauGB 2014, Part 1, § 1; (5)). Based on the goals and tasks described here, requirements and indicators can be formulated and developed.

7The German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB) has developed and introduced a certification system for describing and assessing the sustainability of new neighbourhood developments (cf. DGNB 2012). It follows the basic structure of certification systems for buildings. What is really assessed is the result of the planning and implementation of a new neighbourhood, and thus the level of performance achieved at a defined point in time.

8At present, an intensive discussion is taking place in Germany in relation to the assessment of the sustainability of neighbourhoods (in universities the theme of sustainable campus development is also being discussed). Specifically, this discussion deals with questions such as:

  • How can the object of an assessment (a given neighbourhood) be defined, circumscribed and made comparable to others?
  • What are the differences between the approach of “target definition and performance monitoring” on the one hand, and the approach of “performance measurement” on the other?
  • Is there a risk of stigmatising neighbourhoods with poor quality based on the results of an assessment following the “performance measurement” approach?
  • Can approaches such as “target definition and performance monitoring” support the process of sustainable neighbourhood development and have an influence on how key players are identified and involved in the process?
  • Can the “target definition and performance monitoring” approach be harmonised with the “performance measurement” approach (e.g. by using similar criteria and indicators)?
  • Can the tools for describing, assessing and monitoring sustainable neighbourhood development be combined with models for mobilizing landowners (e.g. housing improvement districts – HID [cf. Krueger et al. 2007])?

9These issues were addressed by the authors in a Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) internal research project (cf. Balouktsi/Luetzkendorf 2013). As a first step, an analysis of existing international and national approaches and methods has been developed. In this paper, selected results and findings are presented and discussed.

2 The Overall Context

10Within the spectrum of global, national and local approaches, cities play a crucial role to globally advance sustainable development given their share of global population, global GDP, resource use, CO2 emissions, and associated dynamics (cf. Wheeler/Beatley 2009). They are complex systems, particularly in the cases of global megacities, which at the same time cause and are affected by global change phenomena such as climate change. Being engines of societal development, melting pots of different cultures, and places of high accumulation of capital, knowledge and human resources, innovation potential, etc., they offer great opportunities to deal with these challenges and to make strides towards sustainable development.

11Governance for sustainable urban development requires both a suitable conceptual basis and analytical tools to define criteria as a basic goal or direction for development, to assess state and development performances, and to design and assess measures to improve performances. Mainly due to the variety of existing local conditions and interests of involved actors, a general and standardized definition of sustainable urban development does not exist to date. While in developing countries, priorities are definitely set on existing problems and their solutions, urban strategies in industrialized countries are more focused on environmental and health problems, urban sprawl, climate protection or urban quality of life in general (cf. Clark 2010; Jenks/Jones 2010). “Compact Cities”, “Resilient Cities”, “Smart Cities” or “EcoCities” are dominating catchwords and initiatives here.

12Nevertheless, integrated or integrative approaches are often and increasingly demanded in this context across countries, but still rarely implemented in practice. “Integrative” is understood here particularly with respect to thematic issues of development, scientific disciplines, sectors, scales, and actors. Thematic integration is the basic idea of the Integrative Sustainability concept of the German Helmholtz Association focusing on the postulate of inter-and intra-generational justice, and its substantiation for the general goals of securing human existence, maintaining society’s productive potential and preserving society’s options for development and action (cf. Kopfmueller et al. 2001). It is one of the very few scientific concepts that is applied systematically in a range of project and consultancy activities in Germany, Europe and outside Europe (cf. Grunwald/Kopfmueller 2012; cf. Kopfmueller 2006) and provides the conceptual background for this paper as well.

13Regarding the aspect of varying scales, three main perspectives have to be considered in research, assessment, planning and governance of urban systems: the total city (including city-rural interrelations), neighbourhoods, and single buildings (associated more directly with subjects such as construction materials, technologies, etc.). Each of these scales displays its own characteristics and contributions to support or constrain sustainable development and should thus be addressed separately as well as considering the relevant interrelations with other scales to meet the requirements of integration. Besides the respective characteristics and properties of the levels of analysis, which can be expressed in the form of a specific functional equivalent, there is important information (e. g. energy and material flows) that is passed from the lower to upper levels.

14While the city and the building levels have conceptually and analytically been addressed for many years, neighbourhoods are increasingly shifting their focus to research and policy (cf. Wiliams et al. 2010). Buildings originally marked the starting point for sustainability assessments in the context of human settlements. In addition to buildings, the interactions of residents and in turn their interaction with the environment influence emissions and resource consumption levels, and this need to expand the scope to other scales leads to a stronger focus on neighbourhoods.

15This intermediate scale is considered as an archetype of human communities. It brings science and planning closer to the needs and real-life circumstances of people, where strong interrelationships to support sustainable development can be created and maintained. At the city level, particularly in big cities, human settlements and interactions are considered foremostly as functional units, while at the neighbourhood level, community, identity and solidarity aspects are more relevant and can be found (or at least be initiated) more often. At this level, human needs and demands (such as mobility, basic supply of water, energy etc.) can be better examined than at the building level, and the neighbourhood size is more manageable analytically and politically compared with the city level. In addition, the various characteristics of a city (densities, cultural diversities, etc.) and their diversities can be considered here much more thoroughly than at the larger city scale, and interactions between different economic, physical and social sub-systems can be analysed more adequately.

16Neighbourhoods play an integral role in forming community and social networks. Within the boundaries of neighbourhoods, more opportunities exist for social and political expression and participation. The level of involvement, engagement and motivation of different actors to participate in decisions influencing their living environment and conditions is higher compared with the city level because residents are involved here more directly and share relatively more homogenous living experiences (cf. Wilson 2009, pp. 1f.). In light of this, interventions at a neighbourhood level provide alternative and often more promising options for a transition to sustainability.

17This approach could be an important contribution to an integrated sustainable urban planning and development process, focusing on elements such as overcoming sectorally fragmented planning and policy strategies, longer-term perspectives beyond usual election periods, and close involvement of civil society stakeholders in decision processes. This in turn could be part of what could be called a “culture of sustainable development” (cf. Parodi 2011), including changes in culture (lifestyles), policy (sectoral coherence and integration, long-terms views, etc.), institutions, and conditions to set appropriate incentives for these changes in the political and institutional framework.

3 Review of Sustainability Assessment Systems

3.1 Certification Systems and Decision Support Tools – an Overview

18The increasing acknowledgement and understanding that the path to sustainability passes through the broader context of the urban environment led to the recent development of several international (and national) sustainability assessment systems on the neighbourhood level (also sometimes referred to as “districts” or “communities”). These can be divided into two main categories, the first includes the systems that emerged from existing and established third-party assessment and certification systems for buildings (such as LEED, BREEAM, CASBEE, DGNB etc.). The second category includes the systems embedded into neighbourhood-scale plans and sustainability initiatives intended mostly to be used as planning and decision-making support tools (first-party and second-party assessment systems) (cf. Sharifi/Murayama 2013). In this paper, wherever the term “systems” is used, it refers to the first category, and wherever the term “tools” is used, reference is made to the second category. An overview of the most well-known systems and tools at a neighbourhood scale is given in Table 1.

19In this paper, both a well-founded survey of the characteristics of existing systems and tools, and a method for comparing them at different scales will be presented. More than ten international tools specific to addressing sustainability at a neighbourhood scale were chosen as a reference in an internal KIT study performed by the authors based on the accessibility and completeness of available information, the coverage level of sustainability, the representation of different parts of the world and the scoring process. The analysed systems and tools include LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND), BREEAM for Communities (BfC), CASBEE for Urban Development (CASBEE-UD), Estidama Pearl Community Rating System (PCRS), QSAS for Neighborhoods (QSAS-NH), Green Star Communities (GSC), Earthcraft Communities (ECC), DGNB Neubau Stadtquartier (DGNB-NSQ) Sustainable Community Rating (SCR) and the EU projects HQE2R and Ecocity.

Table 1: Some of the Most Well-known Systems and Tools


* The date inside the parenthesis indicates the first version of the tool.
Authors’ Archive

3.2 Methodology for the Comparative Analysis

20Tools and systems to support the planning, monitoring and assessment of the sustainability of neighbourhoods have already been compared (cf. Haapio 2012). In some cases these comparisons differ in terms of scope and depth of analysis. For the comparison of tools and systems for the present paper, a generalised approach has been developed and applied which is briefly discussed below. General characteristics are described and an analysis at different levels is carried out. The following issues are examined:

  1. object of assessment (existing neighbourhood, new neighbourhood development, etc.);
  2. basic character (planning support system, certification system with absolute assessment of sustainability, target value system to support sustainable neighbourhood development, etc.);
  3. included dimensions of sustainability – Level 1 (economic, environmental and/or social dimension, possibly supplemented by an institutional dimension);
  4. the assessment criteria included in each dimension – Level 2;
  5. included indicators in each criterion – Level 3.

21In this paper, the topics (a) and (b) are addressed in detail and examples are given for the 3 levels of analysis (c) to (e).

3.3 Results of the Comparative Analysis of the Selected Tools and Systems

22As a first step, the selected tools and systems are compared across the criteria (a) and (b), as discussed above, to provide both an example of such an analysis and an overview of the existing situation. The results are presented in Table 2.

Table 2: Comparative Analysis of the Selected Systems and Tools


X indicates that these criteria are addressed to a satisfactory degree.
Authors’ Archive

23Subsequently, examples of the comparison at different levels are provided (criteria (c) to (e)), in order to show how the relative value of each tool and system in covering all the important issues related to sustainable development should be investigated. Examples are presented in Tables 3, 4 and 5.

Table 3: Level of Inclusion of the Dimensions of Sustainability – Level 1


Authors’ Archive

24When dealing with each tool’s object of assessment, it is important to clarify whether these can be applied to existing neighbourhoods. This is a major challenge, given that the worldwide percentage of existing neighbourhoods exceeds by far the percentage and rate of increase of newly developed ones. But when assessing the existing neighbourhood (as an object), there is the danger of stigmatizing a neighbourhood as “unsustainable”, based only on its performance at a specific point of time, potentially discouraging planners and developers from working in such neighbourhoods. In reality, an existing neighbourhood and its development is not an object but a process, as it changes and evolves continuously through time. Therefore, the authors suggest that when dealing with existing neighbourhoods it is more appropriate to assess their progression (positive or negative development) over time instead of their performance at a iven time for supporting the decision making process.

25A system or tool of measurement typically determines whether a development is sustainable or whether progress is being made towards sustainability (cf. Reed et al. 2009). The character of the assessment system or tool significantly influences its ability to function as a decision support system. Most of the existing sustainability assessment systems are performance oriented, where credit points are awarded based on the level of performance in various areas to specify whether a neighbourhood is sustainable or not. Therefore, particular attention should be paid to the ability of some systems and tools to track temporal changes in the sustainability of existing neighbourhoods or renovation projects and to specify whether they are moving in the right direction towards achieving specific short-term or longer-term sustainable development targets (distance-to-target approach). This type of assessment can be of high relevance, especially for achieving the vision of continuous improvement. Engagement with the concept of continuous improvement in sustainability through effective monitoring and feedback at all levels is already a trend in the context of existing buildings (sustainability assessment for buildings in-use) and this should also be integrated into the assessment of sustainable development of existing neighbourhoods (cf. Egan 2004, pp. 20f.).

Table 4: Level of Inclusion of Economic and Institutional Sustainability Criteria – Level 2


Authors’ Archive

Table 5: Level of Inclusion of Different Indicators under a Specific Criterion – Level 3


Authors’ Archive

26As discussed before, the idea of measuring the relative success of a neighbourhood (instead of the absolute) by comparing performance levels at different points in time or time periods has been discussed in Germany since 2004 (cf. Fuhrich 2004, p. 9). However, this idea arose too soon to influence different actors in this direction. From another point of view, already existing systems that assessed sustainable buildings were adapted to the neighbourhood scale, where in most cases the neighbourhood (existing or new) is assessed as an object and not as a process. However, it should be noted that this method of assessment is suitable only for dealing with new neighbourhood developments and not with existing ones. The negative result of such an assessment is the potential cost of decreasing property values and leaving a stigma on an existing neighbourhood, making it difficult to maintain the community’s ambition to implement changes.

27Among the analyzed systems and tools, HQE2R is the only one that addresses temporal changes of performance assessment and allows the decision makers to evaluate if their actions help to achieve the targets they set. To follow this good example of the application of the “target distance and performance monitoring” approach, the other systems and tools should inform and adjust their methodology.

28The competence of different systems and tools in measuring sustainable development, in other words their degree of sustainability criteria coverage, has always been a major issue to be investigated. It should be noted that in recent years the framework of assessment has been expanded from merely covering environmental impacts to achieving a balance between environmental, social, and economic performance. As a further step, the importance of institutional sustainability as the fourth pillar has also been emphasized (cf. Parris/Kates 2003). This pillar complements the others by considering the participation of all community stakeholders in the decision making process, as well as the community management and governance mechanisms. In this context, some new certification systems and some currently under development (e.g. the new version of BfG and the recently developed GSC) have already considered the inclusion of governance as a main category. This should also be taken into account when refining existing tools.

29Although the goal of achieving sustainability is common within sustainable neighbourhood assessment systems and tools, this is pursued in different ways. Despite the structural similarities of these tools and systems, the included categories, criteria, and indicators are not the same in every case. This makes comparisons more complicated, especially at higher levels. A comparison among the tools and systems can be performed at different levels, as for example at an indicator, criteria or main category (or sustainability dimension) level. A comparison at the highest level (sustainability dimensions) has been provided in Table 3. An example of a comparative analysis at a meso-level is presented in Table 4, where important criteria were gathered from the selected systems and tools to indicate the coverage of specific sustainability criteria under the economic and institutional dimension. However, it is always more accurate to compare at an indicator level, as similar criteria can be assessed by different indicators. This is clearly illustrated in Table 5, where an indicator level comparison under the economic criterion “cost and benefit assessment” is presented as an example to highlight the different possibilities available, just to assess a single criterion.

30It is clear that at the level of indicators and sub-indicators, there are substantial differences among the systems. It is therefore recommended that in addition to the reporting and documentation of complex assessment results, a detailed breakdown of the individual results indicating all criteria and weighting factors should also always be published and expected by the different stakeholders. This is a prerequisite for ensuring transparency.

31The assessment of the sustainability of communities and a sustainable community development is currently the subject of international standardization. Specifically, in 2012 ISO created the ISO/TC 268 Committee on “sustainable development in communities”. This Committee is responsible for three standards: the ISO/CD 37101 “Sustainable development and resilience of communities – Management systems – General principles and requirements” (under development), the ISO 37120:2014 “Sustainable development of communities – Indicators for city services and quality of life” (published) and the ISO/AWI TR 37121 “Inventory and review of existing indicators on sustainable development and resilience in cities” (under development).

3.4 Recommendations

32As a result of the analysis, it can be stated that in the current international and national context there is an increasing focus on the assessment and certification of new settlements and neighbourhoods. The various systems applied usually derive from the tradition of sustainability certification of buildings. They differ greatly in many aspects and need to be analyzed in great detail in order to determine the comparability of their outcomes. These certification systems are a useful tool for the planning and implementation of new settlements and neighbourhoods, and in particular can motivate developers to think more towards sustainable solutions.

33Of course, this does not solve the problem of the (further) development and sustainability-related improvement of existing neighbourhoods, especially of those with several owners of land and buildings. Here, it is recommended to proceed with the traditions of the Local Agenda 21. Tools are needed that will specifically help to design tailored concepts and goals to concrete situations, provide a method of monitoring the implementation, and measuring success in reaching these goals. Thus, neighbourhoods with a poorer initial performance have a chance to be improved in this respect. One basic advantage of this particular approach lies in its participatory model, as local actors are involved in the design of policies and objectives.

34Therefore, the authors recommend that such an approach should be pushed and supported even more than has been done so far. There are already existing examples aiming at the energy-related improvement of neighbourhoods. In the context of the funding programme of the German state-owned KfW Bank, there are models to provide financial support to the “rehabilitation managers” at the neighbourhood level, who can act as coordinators (cf. KfW 2011). It is recommended that this approach be extended to sustainable neighbourhood development, and to consider the energy-related component as a sub-theme. Conceptually, this approach can be applied by community/property owners associations (cf. Baba et al. 2011).

35The existing assessment tools and systems analysed in this paper clearly mark progress in expanding from the building to the neighbourhood level and the scope of applied assessment criteria. However, there are still gaps and deficiencies remaining, particularly with respect to building an integrative understanding as outlined above, and in the development of more detailed policy and planning procedures.

36With respect to possible future activities, the authors would propose a two-step procedure: first, a modular kit could be provided to potential users. This kit should allow for better distinguishing between newly constructed and already existing neighbourhoods, and include an expanded sustainability criteria set which better considers, for instance, cultural aspects, alternative economic aspects (such as discounting practices in investment decisions) or social coherence aspects. Such a kit could be used as a basis for particular assessment contexts. Two elements are to be emphasized here: the design and implementation of the kit has to involve relevant local stakeholders,and should fulfil certain thematic and procedural minimum requirements. Secondly, this kit could be the basis for discussions about possibilities and limits of certain standardizations of assessment processes on neighbourhood levels, and of political commitment to results for involved actors.

37At Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), the findings outlined in this paper will be used and further developed in the context of the cooperation with the City of Karlsruhe (Project “Real-Labor”) and in relation to the idea of sustainable campus development.

4 Integration into Overall Concepts and Developments

38Sustainability assessment is not an end in itself. Its purpose is to support sustainable urban and neighbourhood development. This is influenced and driven by various actors. Many actors are involved, especially during the process of developing an existing neighbourhood, in contrast to the planning of new neighbourhoods through a developer. More than ever in Germany and elsewhere, there is a growing political commitment towards the inclusion of these actors and the mobilization of their capital for a strengthening of the neighbourhoods. One approach, among others, is the model of Housing Improvement Districts (HID) (cf. Krueger et al. 2007). These initiatives require organizational and contextual support. A useful addition to the involvement of planners and facilitators are tools for the formulation of common goals, as well as to verify the achievement of objectives (success). Suitable for this purpose, inter alia, are the sustainability rating systems. The focus of their application does not lie in a certification but in their ability to function as a checklist, a useful tool for monitoring and documentation.

39One can arrive at very similar conclusions when considering the introduction of sustainable property funds (cf. Buegl et al. 2009). Part of this is oriented toward the improvement of neighbourhoods. In this case, effective means and instruments are also required for presenting and communicating the initial state and the improvement or “level of sustainability” attained.

40Sustainability assessment is no longer seen only in connection with issues such as reputation, image or marketing. A change is clearly apparent. Sustainability assessment systems are increasingly becoming a useful and valuable tool for planners, investors and citizens – these efforts must be continued.


41The authors would like to thank the KIT for supporting this research project with funding from the start-up program.


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