AHI has been working with the World Bank and Municipality of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to develop an affordable housing strategy for the rapidly growing city. In late-August, David Smith, our CEO and Founder, and I took a three-and-a-half day trip to present the results. Fortunately we got a little bit of time away from our meetings to see the city and visit a ger area neighborhood – their term for the informal settlements. What follows is a bit of a photo tour with some interspersed musings.
Located in a high valley at the intersection of two rivers, Ulaanbaatar has some of the worst air pollution in the world, in part due to coal heating in the winters. According to the city masterplan, both rivers have protected buffer zones along their banks, although new apartment construction is edging very close on the south side of the valley.
Downtown Ulaanbaatar is a striking collection of soviet style apartment blocks, yurts, and modern glass towers all sitting right next to each other. There’s even an amusement park in the middle of downtown.
Formal infrastructure is centralized, including heat, which is generated at coal-fired power plants located on the outskirts of the city and piped to buildings via hot water mains.
The north slopes of the valley are covered by the semi-formal settlements known as ‘ger-areas’ (ger is the Mongolian term for a yurt). Given the need for good shelter in winter, and the existence of a homesteading-type law, these settlements are not what we usually think of as ‘slums’, but despite some of the outward appearances, most houses lack connections to water and sanitation infrastructure. I suspect the northern slopes were settled in part because they have the most solar exposure in winter, and when it’s negative 30 degrees Fahrenheit, every little bit of sunlight counts!
After driving around for a little while we went to visit several families along one street, including a grandmother with satellite TV and internet in her yurt, a pensioner who grew cucumbers for market and supported several grandchildren in one yurt, families that had built their own houses – one had a self-built masonry heater connected to a coal stove, and a beautiful permaculture center created and tended by a neighborhood resident.
Overall, it was a productive and fascinating trip. Maybe next time I’ll have a chance to get outside of the city!
All images copyright Anya Brickman Raredon, 2014.