The Urriðaholt (Urridaholt) urban master plan in Garðabær, Iceland covers an environmentally sensitive area, with a pristine lake and panoramic views. It is a walkable neighbourhood in a beautiful natural setting. Community participation was a key element in the preparation of the master plan. Special attention was given to the relationship between the urban character and the natural environment. SUDS and BREEAM Communities certification were introduced here for the first time in Iceland.

© Urridaholt Inc.

Sectors of activity
Buildings and construction, Environmental Services

Type of initiative
Capacity Building & Implementation, Policy Frameworks & Tools, Research, Analysis, Assessment

Type of lead actors
Business Sector, Government / public sector

Start date


In Iceland, land is comparatively cheap and plentiful. This has fueled urban sprawl and low-density residential suburbs where distances become too far to walk, pavements disappear, and bus routes become unviable.

One objective was to show how this trend could be reversed, using Urriðaholt as a model, and recalling the walkable character of the central core of downtown Reykjavík. The aim was to create a compact and diverse mixed-use, walkable neighborhood, with local amenities and opportunities to run good public transport. Integrated with sustainable urban design strategies, this will enhance the well-being of the people that will be living and working in Urriðaholt in the future.

The site encompasses a hill that rises some 50 m above a lava field, wetlands, and a portion of a pristine lake, in total 100 ha. The site is surrounded by a beautiful, unspoiled landscape and has spectacular views of mountains, volcanoes and the sea.

Another objective was to design a neighborhood that would fit into, and work with, the unspoiled surrounding landscape, and to integrate the built environment with nature. The pristine lake was also to be protected, both in terms of the cleanliness of the water and in terms of the water level. The aim was to use a Sustainable Urban Drainage System (SUDS) in the neighborhood, as traditional drainage solutions would result in a loss of water catchment area and shrinking of the lake itself. The SUDS maintains the natural hydrology of the site, and ensures that rain falling within the catchment area will feed the lake naturally.

The project serves as a bridge from the seaside community in Gardabaer to the inland nature preserve, providing new connections to the Green Scarf - a continuous natural landscape wrapping the Reykjavik capital area.

The master plan was created with respect for the environment and an emphasis on sustainability - aiming for a BREEAM assessment and certification.

When the planning process started, BREEAM communities’ certification did not yet exist. To ensure the development met with the original sustainable vision, the planners therefore used existing guidelines and checklist. The master plan served as an excellent base for the BREEAM communities 2012 criteria and guidelines. The BREEAM community guidelines assisted the development of local plans in Urridaholt.


The project began with substantial collaborative activities, following Charrette methodology, with municipality council politicians and officers. This included a site visit, briefings, dialogue workshops and hands-on planning groups. The result was a Vision for a walkable, climatically responsive, mixed-use neighborhood, where the lake and the lava fields were protected as much as possible. After this, the local residents were invited to a Community Planning Weekend, where they were first introduced to the development concepts, and then invited to take part in workshops, walkabouts and hands-on planning sessions to consider challenges and opportunities for the site.

What emerged was the desire to create a highly sustainable community. This meant traffic-calmed streets and green links to the protected lake and the wider natural environment, and a detailed Vision for the site, incorporating ideas from the Winter Cities movement, SUDS, etc.

Urridaholt was designed to consist of a mixture of some 1600 dwellings, 90 000 m2 for office and retail, and 65 000 m2 for public uses. Up to 9 000 people will be living and working in Urridaholt when fully built.

Mixed-use principles are utilised. The public buildings hosting most activities are sited to minimize walking distances - around the top of the hill at the geographic centre of Urridaholt. This hub is surrounded by a series of residential areas, each with their own identity. The hillside’s own “Green Scarfs” lead through the landscape to surrounding natural areas. A range of housing types is planned to encourage development of a mixed community. Pedestrians are given priority: streets are designed to reduce traffic speed through changes in direction and use of landscaping. Solutions encouraging an active outdoor life throughout the year were incorporated to enhance the community’s health and well-being during the dark winter months.

Urridaholt features the first Sustainable Urban Drainage System (SUDS), a large-scale Blue-Green drainage solution. Impervious materials are kept to a minimum, and the area design forms a network of swales, placed to collect water from roads and roofs.

Enabling walking, biking and use of public transports promotes resource efficiency. Guidance for the use of sustainable materials in the area also encourages sustainable building practices. Educational material on environmental practices is provided for residents and the elementary school has a special environmental focus.

Impact and Results

Success Factors

Urridaholt has received international awards and certification:
• Recipient of the 2007 citation from the Urban Design Committee of the Boston Society of Architects
• International Award for Livable Communities (LivCom), silver level, category “Environmentally Sustainable Projects”
• First international project to achieve a certification under BREEAM Communities 2012, and the first urban master plan in Iceland to receive a BREEAM Communities certification. The local plan for the North side phase 2 is the first phase to achieve a final certification - with a "Very Good" rating.


Urridaholt is a pioneering development in Iceland - the first to introduce SUDS into a whole neighborhood - and the only known example of a hillside application of this technology in Europe at this high latitude.

Sustainability Impacts

Buildings are sited and designed to take advantage of daylight from the low-angled sun to reduce energy consumption. Sustainable design guidelines for designers promote the use of local and sustainable materials. Encouraging cycling and the use of public transport through safe streets and cycle paths reduces fossil fuel consumption. There is also bike parking at regular intervals in the streets and requirements to include shelters for bikes in all private houses and apartment buildings. Safe disposal of hazardous materials and is encouraged. Service stations for recycled material (glass, paper, plastics and metal) are provided within a walking distance.

Sustainable drainage systems are used in the area. This protects the lake and the surrounding environment. Permeable surfaces exist where possible, to get the water naturally into the ground. The rain from the roofs drain into the soil in raingardens and there are grassy water-channels, (swales) by the roadsides, into which storm water can drain. A network of swales collects water from the roads and allows infiltration, whilst the rainwater runs along the contours to the lake. The SUDS render the area a Low Impact Development, by the use of Blue-Green drainage solutions, which preserve the local hydrology and protect the environmental quality of lake Urridavatn.


The construction of the area and the buildings is somewhat more costly than traditional construction. However, it is expected that the buyers of the flats and houses will appreciate the area’s environmental profile and the green solutions, and be willing to pay the somewhat higher price.

Next steps and how to get involved

Today (2017) the area was about 60% built. It is estimated to be finished within the next 5-10 years.

Challenges and potential for further development

Contractors had initial difficulties in understanding the new approach to planning. Education to the new thinking was thus an important part of the implementation of the SUDS, the new road layout, and the use of new design codes. To help in this task, brochures and videos were made, and books about building communities (placemaking) published. Step by step, the contractors and their consultants gained better insights into why certain solutions were required, what the purpose of these were and how to implement them.

One of the remaining challenges is to attract a mix of different age groups to move into the new area. At present, more elderly people are moving in - partly because there has been a shortage of apartment buildings for this age group. This may change with the opening of the school and the kindergarten, and with more building of smaller and cheaper apartment buildings.

The Urridaholt Vision dared to be different and is an example for implementing new sustainable urban solutions in Iceland, treading gently on the natural environment.

Key parties involved have emphasized that the consultation was successful and that the vision developed in the beginning of the project, by the large group, was both stimulating and useful. When reviewing the plan today, many feel that the emphasis put on environmental aspects and urban quality has stood the test of time and gives a sound base for a quality environment, which caters to the needs of the growing population in Iceland.

Contact person(s) for more information:
Mr. Arinbjorn Vilhjalmsson
City planning officer in Gardabaer