Home to vast geographic features like the Gobi Desert, Mongolia is not a country associated with its urban environment. But after economic reforms following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1990 and the discovery of vast reserves of coal, gold and copper, a large portion of Mongolia’s historically nomadic society has recently begun to settle down, particularly in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, where nearly half of the country’s 3 million residents now live.
Unfortunately, the infrastructure of the city hasn’t yet had a chance to catch up to these rapid growth patterns, resulting in sprawling slum-like settlements consisting mainly of traditional felt tents - known as gers - encircling the city. Civic buildings throughout these neighborhoods are rare, and even travelling within the city is difficult due to the lack of official maps.
Unlike the informal settlements in many countries worldwide, these ger settlements are not illegal, as Mongolian nationals are entitled by law to land ownership in the city. This validates these neighborhoods in the eyes of the government, but they nonetheless remain stigmatized as problematic areas that hinder the modernization of the city - with corresponding perceptions also leveled at their residents. As a result of their urban plight, residents in these areas suffer from high rates of unemployment, alcoholism and health problems.
Seeing the necessity for innovation, The Asia Foundation and the Mayor’s Office of Ulaanbaatar commissioned design group Rural Urban Framework, based at the University of Hong Kong, to construct a new infrastructure of communal spaces and services. As the members of these communities have little prior experience living in permanent settlements with large populations (there not even a word for “community” in Mongolian) the plan needed to gradually assimilate residents into the new living patterns of the city.
The first stage of development revolves around the basic services of urban life: access to clean water and disposal of sewage and waste. For rural nomads, waste in the form of plastic bottles, glass and cans is an unfamiliar urban phenomenon and without clear systems of collection, garbage accumulates in streams, ditches and along the roadside. To solve this issue, Rural Urban Framework designed and constructed 2 “Smart Collection Points,” where trash can be sorted and consolidated, helping to clean streets and “facilitate the hygienic collection of rubbish.” Constructed of concrete and built to fit the topography of the landscape, the structures also act as local landmarks, serving as bus stops and even displaying maps of local playgrounds, clinics, schools and water kiosks that had been previously unmapped.
As it continues, the project will evaluate how the buildings perform, both architecturally and socially. As these buildings are used, more will be learned about the needs of the population, and the structures have been designed so that they can be easily transformed and augmented to serve new purposes. Eventually, the framework of these settlements will start to reveal itself, and residents can begin to take advantage of the bustling civic benefits of the modern metropolis.