Ger district, Ulaanbaatar
Mongolia tends to conjure images of open landscapes, horses and 'gers' – the yurt-style round tents used to house the nomadic pastoralists tending their livestock on the steppe. But as the country experiences rapid urbanisation, the ger lifestyle has increasingly become a feature of city dwelling, bringing its own challenges in social equity and mobility. And that’s what a new multinational research project, led by The Bartlett at UCL and the University of Melbourne, is hoping to solve.
The problem revolves around so-called ger districts, where Mongolians have simply transferred their traditional camps from the pastoral landscape to the city, rather than moving into something more typically urban. The capital city, Ulaanbaatar, for example, has seen its population mushroom in size from under 500,000 at the turn of the century to almost 1.5m today. Ger districts now house more than half of the capital’s entire population.
This is not a new phenomenon. Ulaanbaatar began its existence as an ephemeral encampment of gers that shifted location a number of times. More recently, in common with other mid- and lower-income countries, urbanisation has been driven by a search for better economic prospects, alongside a desire to ameliorate the impact of harsh winters – known as 'dzuds'. The trend towards ger-based urbanisation has been further encouraged by a land law introduced in 2002 that gives each registered Ulaanbaatar resident a right to 700sqm of land within the greater Ulaanbaatar region, providing a compound – or 'hashaa' – large enough to accommodate several family members’ gers, as well as outbuildings and rough dwellings that are built over time.
Divided city: Ger district versus apartment area
UNAA survey point
However, infrastructure has not kept pace. The provision of services in the ger districts is extremely variable; most homes do not have access to running water or sanitation, and many do not have adequate power. Instead, each hashaa will typically have a pit latrine, and residents are obliged to collect water from a neighbourhood water kiosk – a task that becomes increasingly arduous during Mongolia’s long and hard winter, when temperatures regularly reach -40°C. Reflecting the lack of domestic infrastructure, the ger districts are also poorly connected to the city centre, and community infrastructure is sparse, with few paved roads, meaning that bus services are limited to the major roads that skirt the ger districts.
So how do residents service their daily needs, and how might difficulties of access and mobility be improved cost-effectively? This question forms the core of the Ulaanbaatar Accessibility Appraisal – or UNAA, reflecting the Mongolian word 'unaa', which means “to ride” – a research and idea-generating project examining social equity and mobility, and exploring access barriers faced by residents of Ulaanbaatar’s ger areas. The work is supported by a UCL Grand Challenges for Sustainable Cities award and a UCL Global Challenges Research Fund grant. As well as the lead teams in London and Australia, the project involves community outreach specialists from the Mongolia-based NGOs GerHub and Public Lab Mongolia.
Collecting water at a kiosk
Nomadic ger camp, Western Mongolia
Initial findings reveal marked contrasts in access and mobility between ger area residents and those in the nearby planned ‘apartment areas’ of the city. One of the key points of difference is in access to high-quality transport from home. Households in the apartment area are a third more likely to own a car, while also enjoying far superior access to public transport. By contrast, a ger area resident is much more likely to begin a journey with a lengthy walk along dirt roads that can become treacherous during the winter, or have to make use of expensive ‘share taxis’ – should such a service be available. Initial work also found significant gender-based differences in mobility, with women much less likely to have access to the family car, despite the fact that they are more likely to be juggling work and childcare responsibilities.
So, what can be done? The project is exploring this question through workshops, bringing together community members and local government officials and university students to think creatively around the issue. Mobility is one of the many aspects of urban life that these settlers are having to contend with, where problems of access to transport are compounded by the low overall residential density and roads that are unsuitable for paving – and there are no easy solutions.
Collaboration offers an important avenue of exploration, with the existing informal share taxis that provide skeleton services between key places offering a potentially expandable proposition. However, community-led approaches are new and unfamiliar to the many ger district residents who have recently arrived in the city from a nomadic pastoral existence on the steppe. Ulaanbaatar is changing, and creating true accessibility for all is potentially its greatest challenge.
UNAA Community Workshop
Associate Professor in Transport Planning and Housing, The Bartlett School of Planning