The Mongolian urban challenge: A matter of growth, land management and the race against winter in the slums of Ulaanbaatar

By: Noel Sampson, Nicaragua Regional Analyst


“There are so many new rich people and there is no place for them to spend their money” said Rob, a French- American investor I met on the flight from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (UB). He told me he was building a new club and Irish pub – “the biggest in UB” he promised. I gave a dry smile.  The thought of yet another Irish pub is hard for me to get excited about because they all look the same to me. 


Hours later I discovered the city is already full of Irish pubs, crammed in amongst the office towers under a skyline cluttered with cranes. Up in the surrounding hills, beyond the cranes and city lights, the slums are populated by gers (traditional Mongolian tents) exhaling thick coal smoke. The khashaas (individual fenced plots) highlight the organic pattern of the informal urban fabric.



Overview of Ulaanbaatar and its slums far in the back


More than 50% of Ulaanbaatar’s population lives in ger-areas and around 47% of ger residents live in poverty. Ger-areas have limited infrastructure and services such as heating, water and sanitation. Residents use coal-fired stoves to survive extremely harsh winters with temperatures below -40°C. Domestic coal fires are the main cause for air pollution in Ulaanbaatar where individual households cannot afford to connect to the city’s power grid. Improving access to services would help to upgrade these areas. Creating service hubs and promoting increased population density whilst simultaneously making services more affordable will improve the quality of life.


Ger-areas in district-subcenter of Byankhoshu


In order to address these issues the Municipality of Ulaanbaatar (MUB) has requested the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to plan and finance a service and infrastructure provision strategy. This strategy is intended to increase population density and provide public utilities for the two ger district sub-centers of Byankhoshuu and Selbe.  It is hoped that a flow-on effect will be seen on service provision to the surrounding slums that continue to grow.



Lack of access to infrastructure and services are remarkable in Ger-areas in Selbe sub-district


A major cause of the growth of slums in Ulaanbaatar is immigration to the city related to dzud – a concurrent natural disaster characterized by summer drought followed by particularly harsh winter with extremely low temperatures and heavy snow. The 2010 dzud affected an estimated 769,106 people (28% of total population) and has resulted in 8.4 million livestock deaths. Many were forced to move to the capital. Other factors include high poverty levels in rural areas, the inexperience of local institutions in dealing with urban issues, natural population growth and the Free Mobility Law. This law, approved by the Supreme Court in 2003, grants every Mongolian the right to freely own a plot of land in the capital.


Formation of slums in the peri-urban areas of the city


However, there is reason to be optimistic about the potential success of the program. The political will exists, Ger-residents have expressed interest and there are business opportunities for the private sector at a time when the country is experiencing strong economic growth.

The challenges lie in how to implement the program, in particular how slum dwellers will participate in the development strategies. A balance needs to be sought between any benefits and costs of such a program.


Despite construction industry is booming, building season is just five months in a year due to the harsh winter


One option is for residents to pay directly for their connections. This way they need only sacrifice a section of land for road and infrastructure developments of their individual sub-district. However, the monetary cost of such a method would be high, and it would be unlikely to be financially viable for residents. Each heating technical room costs between 15 to 25 Million MNT ($17K USD). A variant of this option is for neighborhood residents to group together to build townhouses and share the costs of connections, but this adds the challenge of financing the construction of the buildings.



View of one family Khashaa in Selbe


An alternative is a land trading process, whereby residents trade a portion of their land to the private sector in exchange for financing of connection costs. The private sector will therefore redevelop the land – building residential or mix-use buildings to be sold on the open market.  However, implementation would be a complicated, long process, and might prove unattractive to the private sector and residents. Success would depend on how much land needs to be sacrificed for low to middle density residential construction.

A third option is community land pooling, where neighborhoods from 10 to 20 Khashaas give up the land owned in its entirety to be redeveloped into multi-use compounds including residential, commercial and social service facilities. The private sector would compensate landowners with a “purchasing credit” that can be used to buy an apartment in the new redeveloped area. This alternative is risky because it puts residents at a disadvantage by making them dependent on the private sector. The main advantage lies in the provision of more land for complete service hubs.



Many Ger-areas have consolidated to more permanent houses but still lack of access to services


In any of the alternatives there are several questions that need to be addressed, such as how to work out the compensation system, and how to prevent land speculation and a rise in land prices after infrastructure provision. Gentrification of these areas could further marginalise the city’s poorest residents.

To address all these concerns a Sub-Center Redevelopment Agency (SRA) will be established to implement the investment program  in a fair, stable and efficient manner for both citizens and private sector interests. The SRA will have a key role in the implementation of the program along with MUB and ADB’s partners such as UN-HABITAT, which is currently working on community mapping and consultation to address citizens’ preferences.


Community consultation in Byankhoshu sub-district


In Ulaanbaatar the private sector is ready to push forward with urban development, the national economy is booming due to rich mining resources, and the Mayor, Bat-Uul, has outlined a vision of creating urban corridors on the model of Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard in the middle of the slums. Citizens need to be empowered to participate in the city’s upgrading and redevelopment strategy. Residents stand to gain through improved housing and quality of life, and lives will be saved from the harsh Mongolian winter. Perhaps Rob, my co-passenger from the flight in, would stand to benefit also by making a wiser choice and investing in the community.

3 thoughts on “The Mongolian urban challenge: A matter of growth, land management and the race against winter in the slums of Ulaanbaatar

  1. Dalia Hernández

    The key here is RISK management. Is investing in house development attractive to investors?. This is classic example of a well meant solution but one that does not fulfills the real needs. It´s like giving a piece of land in the dessert or in the poles. It is GREAT to know that the Mongolian law makers are trying to mitigate the situation. There is more to be done. It is very much like the situation of necessity in Nicaragua with the HUGE difference that we don´t have a booming economy. Why don´t we have a booming economy in Nicaragua? That is the question I ask myself and the government. I try to be not be part of the problem. My family and I are in Nicaragua, we make business in Nicaragua. We are investing. There are better times coming I am sure. Dalia.– From Managua, Nicaragua.


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