Post-Soviet Urbanism in Mongolia

by Sarah Bassett

Located in Northern Asia between Russia and China, Mongolia is still transitioning from its days of being a part of the former Soviet Union. Becoming a democratic nation in 1990, the country has a current population of three million, with forty percent living a pastoral lifestyle. Amongst economic crisis, one of the major issues the country faces are its nomadic populations being forced to move into urban centers in ger (or yurt) districts, particularly Ulaanbaatar its capital city. As a reaction to nomadic traditions, a decrease in livestock, and adverse economic and weather conditions in rural areas, the capital has been unable to cope in terms of city planning, provision of services, and protection of the environment.

Ger districts surrounding Ulaanbaatar, 2009.

During Soviet occupation, the first master plan for Ulaanbaatar was developed and began its implementation in the 1950s, following with revisions in urbanization policy guaranteeing the planting of gardens and trees and provision of municipal services. By the 1980s, Ulaanbaatar was a vibrant city flush with park space, community friendly courtyards, functioning roadways, and infrastructure maintenance. It has been during the past twenty years that a massive change in the conditions of the city has occurred. From deteriorating buildings, streets, and infrastructure to the green and public spaces that once existed being mysteriously sold to be replaced by buildings, Ulaanbaatar is not the same city it was thirty years ago. The planning that was implemented by the Russians insured suitable living conditions and in particular, a vast amount of community space to be enjoyed by all. This is a good music video that shows what Ulaanbaatar used to look like:

Example of one of the courtyards, 2010.

The urban plans developed in the 1970s and 1980s specified a green corridor to extend from the far west of town to the far east, with a large pedestrian-only park centrally located on the North-South axis of the city.

Urban Plan 1975 showing green corridor in central Ulaanbaatar. Ulaanbaatar National Archives.

Urban Plan 1980s. Ulaanbaatar National Archives.

One of the greatest loses in modern times has been the large “Children's Park” (the only remnants of the should-be pedestrian park) which was secretively walled off and construction started two years ago to “upgrade” the park. Here are before and after pictures.

The Children's Park in 1980. Ulaanbaatar National Archives.

There have been measures taken to re-instate other parks throughout the city with the help of foreign aid organizations as well as the Ministry of Urban Planning and Development. Upgrading of some of the courtyards as well as the development of a new park located centrally in the city have already begun this Spring of 2010.

Park/boulevard near the Buddhist Monastery, 2010.

An American architect and urbanist, Sarah has spent the past year in Ulaanbaatar on a Fulbright Fellowship, studying the uncontrolled settlements of migrants in the semi-urban ger districts. She is interested in both the historical and future development of the city, with a focus on the urbanization of nomadic culture. For more information, Sarah can be reached by way of gmail (sarahmbassett).

Credits: Photos by Sarah Bassett, unless otherwise noted in the caption.


  1. these images are excellent. great post. are the ger districts a post-soviet phenomenon or have they been around longer? from an architectural perspective, do yurts offer any advantages over other forms of informal housing?

  2. Just got back from there and loved it, for all it's strangeness. Thanks for this piece, and thanks for the great video.

  3. Dear Sarah,
    I hope you bothered to communicate to the decision-makers in Mongolia that there is a such thing called "city planning" and a city has to have one and has to conform it: Instead of selling any land to any first-comer company who wanted a location for building their building in whatever "design" they wanted.
    I'm Mongolian and I can tell you Mongolians (except myself) are extremely naiive and need to be told. They don't see it themesleves unless one tels them.

  4. Thank you for the great comments!

    The ger districts have been around for some time (in fact, Ulaanbaatar's origins started as a ger city), they were strongly regulated during the soviet era but grew exponentially during the early 2000's due to consecutive harsh winters. Unfortunately, little policy has been implemented to regulate these areas today which causes larger migratory populations to settle as well as a lack in amenities (particularly waste disposal).

    I believe the ger is a very sufficient, and advantageous, form of housing due to its ability to be mobile and versatility in extreme climate conditions. Architecturally, it is very sustainable as it is made from natural materials, can be put up/taken down quickly, and has a very long history of use is cultures all over the world.

    To respond to the last comment; there is a lot being done in terms of proposals and a want for change in both the ger districts and the urban city of Ulaanbaatar, money and getting those proposals passed is the constant issue! I think, as your comment regarded, there is a great need to involve the residents in the decision-making process and publicizing what is being done (both positively and negatively) so a greater population can understand exactly what is going on.

  5. I spent a frigid winter in Ulaanbaatar several years ago researching transportation systems for my BA (Anthropology) and I'm very happy to see this brief article.

    I disagree with Anonymous who said "Mongolians ... are extremely naiive [sic] and need to be told." Mongolians, yourself included, are not naive, they simply have a different value system, experience and goals. Many Mongols are unfamiliar or perhaps disinterested in American-style urban planning and the current system may not engage citizens well. Though it may frustrate us, it is indeed city planning. Ulaanbaatar's city planning is relatively haphazard but it is not our duty or right to thrust our systems upon the city. You state that you are a Mongol and clearly your opinion is valid, but I strongly disagree.

    The issue of city planning, and integrating ger districts, is systemic and cultural. No amount of money or expertise will change anything. Residents of Monmgolia and Ulaanbaatar in particular will have to decide for themselves how and when to regulate and enforce city planning. I assume that, as a Fulbright Fellow, Ms. Bassett was invited to Ulaanbaatar and worked with city leaders. Her research can be a great step in educating local leaders, but it's ultimately up to the residents to decide whether they want strongly regulated city planning and what that plan would be.

  6. "American-style" urban-planning (or simulacra of American planning aesthetics, as enacted by Korean, Chinese, Mongolian, and other developers--the "American" contribution may be an economics of capital capacity) has actually been active in Ulaanbaatar for the better part of the past decade. The result has been the infill highrises that subsume much of the Socialist-era city and the greenfield development of nearly the entire Zaisan district. There are urbanists who would cheer such increasing density, believing this would mitigate sprawl (it hasn't). Conversely, there are urbanists (such as the original author of this blog post) who are nostalgic for the open green spaces of the Soviet-built city she never had to experience. First, they were not often green. But second, how would she answer to the needs of Ulaanbaatar's citizenry, who might wish for an improved quality of life through their material environment? Admittedly, the quality of many of the newer buildings is still lacking, but most of the post-Socialist constructions supply far more efficient plumbing systems (many apartments in the 40K buildings from the 1950s did not have their own toilets and continue to lack hot water supply), heating, and insulation, not to mention the safety of structural integrity (while not a very active seismic zone, I wonder how well the pre-fab blocks of the 1970s and 80s would resist lateral loading).
    Ger are indeed wonderful technological innovations for the mobility required of grazing livestock, but have brought their own set of issues in the urban setting, including the frequently cited lack of sanitation and inefficiency of each family relying on its own coal-fired stove for cooking and heating.
    It would sound like I am arguing against the original blogger, as well as both commentators (Paul and the anonymous Mongolian), but actually, I believe understanding both the current situation of Ulaanbaatar and how it has come to be can lead to a useful assessment for the future of the city. Both the self-planned ger areas and the Socialist-planned city remain relevant. Expertise can lead cultural change while still remaining responsive to the needs of the citizenry.

  7. Thanks for this post and photo. We used the one "Ger districts surrounding Ulaanbaatar, 2009." for our story:

    Government officials debate planning challenges


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