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Monday, August 1, 2016

Welcome to Ulaanbaatar Village

I just returned from my first trip to Mongolia (UB, Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, Khovsgol Nuur) with a deep love for the country, its people, its rich and diverse nature and culture.

Yes, Ulaanbaatar is not much of a 'love at first sight' capital city, with its Soviet-size blocs and avenues, its lack of an old town, its pollution (coal power plants, heating, Gobi dust, traffic, air trapped by the surrounding mountains), or its extreme climate (minus fifty during the Winter, over thirty in the Summer - mercifully, no humidity, no mosquitoes), but it does have touching alleyways and traditional houses in its 'ger' areas (NB 'ger' is the Mongolian term for yurt).

A 'ger' close to the city center

Most 'ger' are located on the outskirts - particularly to the North. From a downtown tower, you can see them reach over the furthest hills (Note also the E-Mart* in the foreground - right).

We're not talking Seoul-style hanok clusters - ger are nomadic structures, not meant to stay all year round at the same place, and UB's ger villages are rather a symbol of urban sprawl caused by rural exodus. Many of their owners landed in Ulaanbaatar for lack of a better option, sometimes after losing all their cattle during an extreme winter, like that 2010 'dzud'. Most grabbed a spot illegally - it's okay to settle for a while, and each Mongolian citizen is allowed 0.7 ha for free in this vast, mostly uninhabited country (3M souls for 1.5M sqkm, not to mention 60M heads of cattle), but there are rules to follow to claim a land.

Ger villages themselves are evolving, and it shows as you move from the city center to its edges. On the furthest hills, the new lots look like miniature versions of the fenced properties you see in the countryside, there are not many structures beyond the ger, and even sometimes a few goats. Progressively, lots incorporate elements more common to shanty towns, or even upcycle containers. The proportion of traditional ger decreases, and small houses start to emerge, followed by concrete buildings along major roads that have been paved under a Mayor (Erdeniin Bat-Uul) who decided to invest a lot in these previously forsaken areas. Actual alleyways with street signage and numbers can be found more often, and where they meet the main roads, a few services illustrate how the shanty town is turning into a town.

As each individual transits from nomadic to urban life, a new kind of community is taking shape. For the moment, the density remains low because people who moved in could snatch decent space, and their kids don't need their own place yet. Many nomads watch the TV, charge their phones, and use mobile internet as they do on the go thanks to small solar panels, even if these neighborhoods have no electricity. Crime remains surprisingly low, and usually limited to petty theft, because that's not in the culture. And surprisingly enough, these neighborhoods are much cleaner than many cities, thanks to another good Mongolian tradition of respecting nature, public and shared spaces; just like you find well protected waste gathering spots by the roads in the steppe, people take care of their garbage in an orderly manner.

But the situation is already almost beyond control in most ger areas: no sewage system, no water system, a 60% unemployment rate, major health issues (e.g. people burning tires in their ger to survive cold winters),... and a demographic boom to cope with. Half the population lives in the capital compared to a quarter before the 1990 democratic revolution (Ulaanbaatar had 540,600 inh in 1989, over 1.3 M now), and tens of thousands more join these ger areas every year.

The social and urban planning challenges are titanic at all levels, particularly as the country stops posting record growth rates, and as the city tries to recover from a housing bubble. If Mongolia is seeking inspiration from other countries and particularly Korea, it can also try to leverage its unique assets.

I'll take 3 examples - transports, housing, and environment:

  • Public transportation:  
    • UB's subway project has been postponed several times, but should turn out well. A bit like Paris' Ligne 1, the first line would follow the central axis (17.7 km mostly along Peace Avenue). UB is also working on BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), and dedicated lanes that could make a big difference in a city clogged by traffic jams. 
    • A 'maeul bus' system could be adapted to the ger configuration, maybe circling along each hill (the unit used in the steppe to measure distances), and connected to the main backbones of the network. The Mongolian people could also come up with a original system that honors their great expertise in logistics.

  • Housing:
    • UB is betting on apartments, and there are already many of these across the city, from the Soviet-era blocks to the luxury serviced residences South of the Tuul river (Gangnam, indeed!). Nothing adapted to the local context and culture. And I don't want these ger areas to be turned into soullesss 'apateu' bed towns like the ones Seoul built in the 80s. 
    • At least, Seoul could leverage on Korea's village culture. And to me one of the key challenges for Ulaanbaatar is to integrate masses who grew up in an overwhelmingly nomadic culture into a diverse and future proof cityscape without losing anyone's identity. If UB is organized in big districts, they are not yet divided into neighborhoods, and something specific should definitely be considered for these vast ger stretches. As soon as possible.
    • The new alleyways are created like long verticals, but gers, and hills are round. I believe in a grid that would have rounder nodes, and shared spaces allocated in advance to nature and community life. Right now you still can see the hills around you, but five, ten years from now, most people in the ger areas will be deprived of the view of nature, and that's a tragedy for a people of nomads who roamed such beautiful landscapes. No construction should be allowed on the top of each hill, and mid-rise structures preferred to towers for apartments, so that everybody can, at any moment, walk up a few hectometers and enjoy some feeling of space. And guess what? Each neighborhood map would look like a ger ceiling! Of course, urban continuity is also needed, and neighborhoods should not exclude each other, the aim is to bring people together, to go beyond hutong walls.
    • Step by step(pe?), people will give some purpose to these empty spots, and who knows, some may become known for their wrestling events, their BBQ parties, or their song contests. The day people give a name to their own neighborhood, replace that stupid number with it! UB has a tough time mapping itself, and OpenStreetMap is working on it, but let's involve even more local populations.
    • Mongolia can design land incentives to have people move to a different spot or a collective housing when needed - of course without creating inequalities with other regions and drawing more people to the cities.
    • BTW, speaking of hill tops: remember the time you could see from a distance a red cross lit at night on the top of every hill in Seoul? And nowadays, a lot of Korean missionaries are roaming UB, because they know from the Korean experience that this urban boom is an opportunity to easily convert people who left the countryside...
Ulaanbaatar Northeastern ger villages on Google Maps: a classic urban sprawl with bottlenecks in the making and little harmony.

Landing in Murun, Khovsgol, a similar (sub)urban pattern
(20160728 -

Great walks through Ulaanbaatar ger villages. Urban planning challenges similar to yet different from old Seoul's (20160731 -

  • Environment:
    • Sound public transportation and housing policies are needed to improve air quality in UB. But removing these coal power plants would help a lot, and it's hard to give up coal when it's so cheap to extract from your own land. 
    • As it happens, Mongolia was named after its blue skies, and enjoys over 200 sunny days every year, which is ideal to harvest solar energy. Yet you don't see many solar panels in the city center, and that's a shame. 
    • Since many ger owners are familiar with the technology, ger neighborhoods must show the way and bring solar energy to the next level as they evolve - one more reason to prefer mid-rise structures, that won't take the sun from their neighbors. And let's seize the opportunity to design streets that don't freeze during the winter, public transportations that source their energy at least partly from the sun.
    • Impossible weather and frozen soils make it difficult to grow vegetables outdoor? Ulaanbaatar could also become a model city for urban farming by using part of its abundant sunlight to grow indoor and off-soil, and starting with ger areas would be the easiest and most scalable way. Bonus: sustainable jobs within each neighborhood - straight from nomads to urban farmers!

Those are only random thoughts. Seoul Village has certainly no lessons to give to Ulaanbaatar Village, and to the contrary I wish that a few years from now, the rest of the world will visit UB for inspiration.

A photo posted by Stephane MOT (@stephanemot) on

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* hardly a surprise in a city where South Korean coffee franchises are multiplying, and where every other international restaurant seems to be Korean (including from the North).

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