Practice for Architecture and Urbanism believe that design can tangibly improve cities, as long as it strives to make a social impact, and resists becoming a service for only the wealthy.
Where is your city?
Is it stuck in the past, content with staying in the present, or moving towards the future?
If your city still has a central business district that residents commute to in the morning, and leave in the evening, then your city is stuck in the past.
Your city is content with staying in the present if it is polycentric. In this city of many centres, the central business district is just one of many nodes of interests where commercial, institutional, recreational, and other services are offered.
Few of us live in the city of the future. This city’s strength is that it is interconnected. Not just a city that is technologically connected, but a city layered with vibrant public spaces, hospitable infrastructure, much fewer cars, and several transportation options of all sizes. In this city of the future, housing, work, retail, community, health, culture, and green spaces are all within a 20-minute walk of each other. It is radical urbanism that challenges what we currently call “mixed-use,” and provides a more diverse selection of uses for urban space.
In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, a master plan of a radical mixed-use development by Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU) has the potential to be an example of what that city could become in the future. Breaking ground in 2019, the 17-acre, 500,000 square-foot project called Ulaanbaatar Village, will be 41 low-and mid-rise buildings for an urban Mongolian lifestyle.
What prompted the client, the Mongolian National Amusement Park, to commission a New York-based firm to design a transformative community in the middle of Ulaanbaatar? PAU recognized the city’s uniqueness which both reflects the country’s nomadic roots and is an expression of Mongolian culture to the world. As an architect, urban planner, author, and founder of PAU, Vishaan Chakrabarti explains it, the firm gave the head of the National Amusement Park different advice than most.
“He (the client) said that ‘everyone who has seen the site has told us to build a shopping mall,” says Chakrabarti, describing the client’s desire for the location. “We don’t want to build a shopping mall.”
With the client looking for a more imaginative design for the site, PAU took the time needed to understand the context in which they would be working. “We went to Mongolia and we looked at the site,” Chakrabarti says. “Instead of creating one large building, we decided to create 41 smaller buildings that they could just meander through and get lost in. Mongolian society is very nomadic, so the idea of a shopping mall would not have worked. The client said that they don’t like the idea of walking into a space that is controlling them, and shopping malls have very rigid architecture.”
Ulaanbaatar Village is not a luxury project, nor does it express the sameness that is too often found in many developments in the world. This will be a place that will meet the needs and aspirations of the people in the city. The spirit of the project is very Mongolian, even down to what will be sold in the shops. “The retailers that the client wants will be local,” explains Chakrabarti. Some of the shops may end up selling items like handmade belts, yak milk, sheep skins, matted goat, roasted barley kernels, rawhide rope, and other items familiar to locals.
More than just a place to shop, Ulaanbaatar Village will be a dynamic, mixed-income community. A place where people will live in urban housing suitable for the climate, enjoy playgrounds, work in local industries, watch movies, dance at clubs, and gaze from the neighbourhood observatory. They will also see local art, indulge in culture at the folk theatre, relax inflexible public plazas, be thrilled at a haunted house, and saunter between buildings choosing their own paths. A place where the people of Ulaanbaatar can experience the newest phase of their nomadic heritage as flâneurs in their own city.
The colourful architecture of stained concrete and stone buildings will be modern versions of what Mongolians have known for centuries, designed to match the surrounding landscape, and arranged without a strict grid. Most importantly, they will buildings with a healthier indoor environment compared to others in the city. According to a UNICEF discussion paper, too many buildings in Ulaanbaatar have no insulation and poor indoor air quality. Buildings such as schools and hospitals, are poorly heated and lack proper sealing around opening. The buildings of the project will be oriented to reduce the effects of wind, increase solar heat gain, and even geothermal heating will be used in some areas. It will be Mongolian vernacular architecture integrated with advanced building technology. “The buildings will be built using local workers, local materials, and local construction methods,” says Chakrabarti. Ulaanbaatar Village will be a form of urban pastoralism that will show the city what is possible across the region, and show the world how deeply contextual projects can make an impact.
When we consider which cities serve as examples for where urban life should go in the coming decades, Ulaanbaatar, the coldest capital city in the world, is likely not one of those places. On the edges of Ulaanbaatar, large areas are stuck in the past, while its central areas exist in the present. However, opportunities for the whole city to move to the future are coming very quickly. To understand the impact that Ulaanbaatar Village could have on the region and the country, consider the dynamics that have driven the rapid urbanisation that the city has experienced over the last 30 years.
Mongolia is a country where a nomadic lifestyle saw families move around over 20 times a year with their livestock, depending on the state of the vegetation in an area. The freedom to move for Mongolians is the basis for their wellbeing. Unlike the built environment which controls and directs movement, nature is less controlling and allows for more opportunity to improvise. When the government stopped controlling the herd market in the early 1990s, the number of livestock increased significantly, saturated the market, and made the life of a herder less profitable. Consequently, tens of thousands of herders moved to Ulaanbaatar every year to find work.
Then there was a terrible winter in 2010, which locals called a dzud, that killed 8.5 million animals. When livestock was collectively owned and state-controlled, herders did not have to worry about a dzud, but the privatisation of the market left herders exposed to harsh winters and desertification. With the state no longer ensuring their livelihood by providing feed for their livestock during tough winters, hundreds of thousands of herders left their millennia-old way of life for urban life in Ulaanbaatar. There they could find work in the city’s coal, copper, and gold industries.
From 2001 to 2014, the city’s population went from 630,000 to 1,070,000 people. Many of these new city dwellers established themselves on the northern periphery of Ulaanbaatar in what has come to be known as the ger district, which refers to the traditional dwellings that herders and their families lived in out in the countryside. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Mongolian government owned all land, but it too was privatised giving all Mongolians the chance to own a parcel of land. Unfortunately, the details of that ownership were ambiguous. As compensation for the loss of livelihood, the government promised every herding family a plot of land, but without proper guidelines for ownership, land valuation, and taxation, and unplanned urbanism occurred.
Instead of vast steppes to move about, these sprawling legal encampments are slums where the gers are close together, separated by wooden fences, and residents burn coal to stay warm during the winters. In rural areas, people would use dry yak dung for fire, but their choices are limited in the city’s poorer areas. A million tons of raw coal per year is burned in the ger district, and when coal is not available, they turn to burning garbage, plastics and tires, causing major health problems. According to some estimates, 80% of Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution comes from the ger district.
Along with unhealthy air, there is also no electricity, no running water, no sewage, and no garbage collection in many parts of the ger district. Residents have little green space, use dusty roads that frequently flood and children have no place safe to play. Living conditions and pollution is so bad that in recent years, some have left the capital for the countryside again, or to smaller towns in the region where the air is cleaner. It is so bad that the city’s deputy mayor in charge of green development cryptically asks, “If we do not act, shall we all die burning whatever we want?” In 2017, the government banned migration until 2020, as a way to reduce pollution in the overcrowded city.
After allowing urban sprawl to go uncontrolled for decades, Ulaanbaatar’s master plan calls for a development of the region and the ger district. First, they want to develop satellite towns around Ulaanbaatar, each with a specialized focus and connected to the capital by rail transportation for passengers and freight. Then they want to establish an urban growth boundary around the ger district to prevent its further expansion. To reduce car use, government, financial, and all other businesses will be decentralised, turning Ulaanbaatar into a polycentric region, rather than a city with a defined core.
The plan for housing throughout the city will range from high-rise developments in the traditional core to low-rise developments connected to small localised utility grids on the edge of the core. The poor housing of the informal ger district will have high-and mid-rise apartments connected to the grid close to the core; low to mid-rise, self-sustaining dwellings, partially connected to the grid in the middle; and low-rise, self-sustaining dwellings at the fringes before the urban growth boundary. There is some doubt whether many of these ger district residents will sign agreements with private developers, give up their gers to live in high-rise apartments. There are even those who fear the city’s plans will only force the most vulnerable residents in the ger district into homelessness. Cramming people into soulless high-rise apartments is a move that cities in the developing world seem to be content with making, even though the developed world has shown it to be a mistake. Hopefully, Ulaanbaatar Village is seen as an alternative vision for the ger district.
International groups, such as The World Bank and World Health Organization, have all documented the problems of Ulaanbaatar’s rapid urbanisation and where things need to improve. The city and the country are already receiving financing from the Asian Development Bank to build basic infrastructure and services in the ger district, pilot clean energy transit, build a solar power plant, build affordable housing, and improve other areas of economic development. The rush by city officials, the national government, and international stakeholders to bring the Mongolian capital into the future is a response to the dire present that currently exists. Ulaanbaatar is a city desperate to have clean air, green energy, a healthy population, and are willing to try innovative ideas without the political wrangling that slows down or blocks similar decisions in Western cities. It is in this context that Ulaanbaatar Village will be built, which is why it has a good chance to be the model development for the region, and be the project that serves as an experiment for the country to learn from.
There are not many urban projects that have the potential to transform a whole city-region, and maybe even a country, but Ulaanbaatar Village may be one of them. Understanding where Mongolian society is now, Chakrabarti’s desire is that Ulaanbaatar Village becomes a project that can be learnt from, not just in that country, but beyond.
“My hope is that people around the world see the project and it shows them what is possible when projects are built with a strong local focus.”
Words Phil Roberts