Analyses

Development Strategies for Ulaanbaatar According to the Conception for the City’s 2040 General Development Plan – Part 2

This is the second part of an inquiry into Ulaanbaatar’s winning 2040 General Development Plan Conception (GDPC). In this part of paper, I look into some of the plans and/or solutions proposed in Ulaanbaatar’s 2040 GDPC.

Instytut Boyma 11.04.2020

I. INTRODUCTION

This is the second part of an inquiry into Ulaanbaatar’s winning 2040 General Development Plan Conception (GDPC).  In the first part of this paper, I discussed the atmosphere in which the GDPC has recently found itself amidst Mongolia’s attempts to develop a holistic national policy for long-term development. I briefly summarized Ulaanbaatar’s past planning efforts beginning roughly in the 1930s and, the usually only partial, implementations of the city’s previous general plans. I pointed to some of the current problems of the city such as unsupervised internal development and fringe sprawl, housing stock shortages and their connection to social and economic stratification as exemplified by the city’s ger district residential areas.  In the second part of this paper, I look into some of the plans and/or solutions proposed in Ulaanbaatar’s 2040 GDPC. Before that, however, I offer an update on the afore-mentioned long-term national development policy’s future vision of Ulaanbaatar and its surrounding area. Hopefully, such an approach will help highlight continuities as well as discontinuities in the city’s planning strategies and help answer (or at least point to) questions about long-term unified development strategies and their strengths and weaknesses.

In the previous, introductory part of this analysis, I hinted that a long-term development policy document (then in the making), when published, might render the GDPC outdated. Since the closing of the first part of this paper (published in the Kwartalnik Boyma#3)  the commission appointed to perform the task of devising Mongolia’s long-term development policy has succeeded in putting together a document which introduces the outcomes of their research and planning efforts. The document entitled “Alsiin kharaa 2050” (“Long[-term] Vision 2050”, hereinafter “the AX2050”)  summarizes the last 30 years of Mongolia’s development efforts as well as introduces values fundamental to the country’s new development vision along with some very concrete plans and objectives to be implemented throughout the next 30 years. Of course, since Ulaanbaatar’s GDPC is a conceptual document rather than a final plan it is still possible to perform an update of the proposed vision of controlling the city’s growth so that it includes recommendations made by the AX2050. In this context, it is worth to take a look into Ulaanbaatar-related content of the AX2050. Thus, below I first comment on the recommendations for the long-term development of Ulaanbaatar and the so-called “Central Belt” as seen from the national (i.e. the AX2050’s) level of policymaking, after which I discuss the paper’s main subject of interest, i.e. strategies for shaping Ulaanbaatar’s growth as introduced through the GDPC.  After that, I address the issues overlooked by the GDPC and their relation to the institutional problems of development planning in Mongolia. In the closing part of the paper, I attempt to situate the approaches proposed by the GDPC on the city’s development continuum’s timeline, one ideally encompassing the past, the present and the future.

II. AX2050 OR THE NEW “LONG-TERM VISION 2050”

Although the AX2050 with its 30-year time-span focus might in some contexts seem a mid- rather than long-term planning document, one should remember that five-year economic plans and ~20-year general plans were a standard during the socialist period and post-socialist planning documents were usually introduced for a period no longer than an average of around 15 years. The AX2050 doubles their “lifespan” while also taking on a very wide thematic perspective. The increase, especially when coupled with a focus on reviewing previous planning documents, characteristic of both the AX2050 and the GDPC, is indicative of a more holistic approach to the complex nature of development planning on both national as well as local levels. Still, as discussed in the first part of this analysis, it should be remembered that this unprecedented effort at long-term development planning needs to be considered in the context of the upcoming 2020 parliamentary elections. The imperatives contained within the AX2050 will most likely be mirrored in the Mongolian People’s Party’s election program, probably also on Ulaanbaatar’s municipal level. Below are some of the interesting, general goals as well as more specific objectives and solutions proposed in the AX2050’s two sections dealing with Ulaanbaatar and its surrounding area:

  1. A decentralization of densely populated Ulaanbaatar

This is to be achieved through two main, parallel tendencies – an internal and external one. The former one includes the construction of several sub-centres which would help mitigate the various problems of the city’s downtown area and at the same time stimulate the redevelopment and independent growth of fringe districts by offering an infrastructural background for the process. The latter, external tendency assumes diverting some of the roles handled by Ulaanbaatar – the country’s administrative, trade and transport centre to satellite settlements which in effect would enable the creation of what is being called “an international science and technological [centre], transport hub, hi-tech, industrial and service belt”. The developing such an integrated area would further stimulate the growth of smaller urban centres which in effect easing the condition of Ulaanbaatar. The ultimate outcomes of this external decentralization are envisioned as an Ulaanbaatar agglomeration by 2040 and metropolitan area by 2050. The AX2050 is somewhat vague about the development of industrial, service and agricultural enterprises in the Central Belt area, but all three sectors are named as important pillars of the region’s economic growth and are obviously connected to the general vision of decentralizing the urban area of central Ulaanbaatar along with the simultaneous development of the region as a whole.

  1. Ecological hazards posed to the local environment

In terms of environmental protection issues highlighted as requiring special attention include mostly those related to air and soil pollution. Air pollution is to be curbed through fully connecting the ger districts to the power grid and gradually redeveloping them, through a shift to electrical-powered public transport as well as promoting the protection of natural forests and establishing of new ones. Water resources are to protected through sustainable management.

A more efficient management of waste dumps is to be implemented, including turning old waste dumps into parks. A new assessment of the region’s green areas is to be carried out in the second half of the period in order to ensure better management.

The inefficiencies of the current heat and power supply system are attributed to the outdated grid and pipe system infrastructure rather than an insufficient power capacity of the current facilities. Nevertheless, the area’s growing demand for power is to be satisfied by a new hydroelectric power plant, but details have not been provided regarding its planned location. At the same time, no mention whatsoever is made of the long-overdue project of the 5th Power Plant.

  1. Transport infrastructure in the area

Internal transport infrastructure within Ulaanbaatar and the Central Belt, as well as connections with other areas, are to be improved. Apart from expanding the road network and electrifying the public transport fleet also the local rail is to be developed. Plans include adding a second line of rails in the region (throughout most of its length Mongolia’s railroad is a single-track network), electrification of the rail system (as of now Mongolian trains are pulled by steam locomotives) as well as the construction of a new rail line running south of the Bogdkhan uul massif and thus bypassing Ulaanbaatar.

Ulaanbaatar’s new international airport (NUBIA) plays an important role in some of these plans. Not only is it to contribute to increasing the volume of air traffic, but it is also being used as a foundation for improving local ground transport and industrial logistics and developing satellite settlements around Ulaanbaatar.

  1. A new capital?

An issue worth mentioning which appears in the AX2050 mostly in the context of developing transport infrastructure is transferring the country’s capital to a different location; one referred to as ‘the new capital’ (Mong. shine niislel). This idea is not elaborated on or referred to directly anywhere in the document but can be inferred from information about transport infrastructure to be developed between this new capital and other urban centres such as Ulaanbaatar or Arvainkheer. Based on the length of the planned roads and rail, one can be certain that the location of this new capital is the town of Kharkhorin. The idea itself is not new and is just another resurfacing of the notion of reestablishing Karakorum, the initial capital of the Mongolian Empire, as the capital of modern Mongolia. This vision, however unrealistic, resonates with renewed strength every couple of years.

  1. Social policies

Social policies are to be developed gradually, aiming to mitigate social stratification and socio-economic hardships which have become an extreme problem throughout the city and region. Ulaanbaatar is to supposed to become a citizen-centred and sustainable city. Promoting the idea of civic society and a unified urban identity adjusted to the local circumstances are objectives brought up only in the long run (i.e. for the period of 2040-2050). The vision of Ulaanbaatar evoked in the AX2050 is based on a conception promoted by the Mayor’s Office throughout 2019. It is one of a city (Mong. khot) centred around three values: people (Mong. khün), surroundings (Mong. orchin) and planning (Mong. tölövlölt). The word khot is used as an abbreviation of these objectives (as explained on the webpage http://xot.city), and these values are also mirrored in the AX2050. Ulaanbaatar’s current mayor, Sainbuyangiin Amarsaikhan has throughout the last year, since replacing the previous mayor Sunduin Batbold  , made efforts to present himself as a proactive leader of the Ulaanbaatar community. The connections between policies introduced by the municipality and the national development policy are proof of that as well as an indicator of the important role the AX2050 is supposed to play during the upcoming parliamentary elections. These alignments between the regional- and national-level planning policies can also be treated as indicative of Amarsaikhan’s positioning within the People’s Party.

  1. Ger district redevelopment

The redevelopment of the ger districts is mentioned explicitly on a very limited number of occasions (e.g. in the context of providing affordable housing for the districts’ residents), but the question of infrastructure is highlighted more often. I discuss the question of ger district redevelopment in more detail in the following sections.

III. ULAANBAATAR’S 2040 GENERAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN CONCEPTION

Moving on to the GDPC document itself a few words should be said about its methodological approach. The GDPC proposes an understanding of development as a process stretching into both the future as well as the past. In this sense, even though composed before works on the AX2050 commenced, the GDPC fits into the framework proposed by the AX2050. As a document shaped by the understanding of planning as not only drawing grand visions for the future but also as acknowledging the legacy of Mongolia’s previous urban planning efforts (along with their shortcomings and failures), the GPC attempts to build on ideas proposed in the Ulaanbaatar 2020 Master Plan and Development Approaches for 2030 document (hereinafter “the DP 2020/2030”)  , i.e. the city’s previous development plan. Through doing so, it hopes to utilize past experiences and develop effective mechanisms of integrating earlier approaches into its strategies rather than proposing completely new ones. The core methodological framework introduced for the GDPC also includes three tools often utilized in strategic planning:

– the SWOT analysis – a mechanism used at early stages of planning a strategy in order to help measure its Strengths and Weaknesses, the Opportunities it offers along with the Threats it might pose;

– the STEEP analysis tool – used to point to the Socio-cultural, Technological, Economic, Ecological and Political factors and implications of the strategy in question ;

– the SMART criteria, i.e. designing a development strategy that is Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Relevant and Time-based – these criteria are used to determine the goals and/or objectives of a given strategical project.

The fact that the GDPC proposes a defined methodological framework, especially when coupled with the conception’s perspective on the timeframe required for proper research and strategy design, hints strongly at the document’s comprehensive approach to the problem of urban development. The GDPC identifies current or near-future Ulaanbaatar as a “resilient city”, i.e. one which, despite the various fractures in its structure, manages, at least for the time being to sustain itself. Among Ulaanbaatar’s problems, as identified by the GDPC, are:

– over-population

– service-based consumer economy

– uncontrolled urban sprawl

– air, fine dust, soil and water pollution

– heavy traffic congestion

– deplorable living conditions

– a defective administrative and legislative environment

– an underdeveloped urban culture lacking continuity

From the “resilient” state as characterized by the above problematic conditions, the GDPC promotes a transition to a state of a “livable city,” i.e. one which is:

– sustainable

– compact

– accessible

– smart

– adaptable

– dynamic

Before looking closer at some of the GDPC’s more specific objectives, it is worth to look back at the DP 2020/2030 which in 2013 proposed developing Ulaanbaatar into:

– a safe, healthy and green city that is resilient to climate change;

– an environment which through appropriate land use planning, infrastructure and housing becomes and remains livable for its residents;

– a city with good governance and a developed legal environment that serves the general public and private sector;

– an environment encouraging the further development of settlements, towns and satellite cities outside the city centre;

– one of Asia’s tourist destination cities;

– and a world-standard capital city.

Although due to the formal differences of these two documents also their visions offer a different degree of detail it can perhaps be said that the GDPC puts more emphasis on the internal integration of the city as well as its position in the surrounding area, whereas the DP 2020/2030 paid attention also to the international status of Ulaanbaatar. At the same time, the environmental aspect of urban planning seems to be emphasized more in the DP 2020/2030 than in the GDPC.

Some of the more crucial issues regarding Ulaanbaatar’s future as presented (or overlooked) by the GDPC, along with commentaries, can be found below.

  1. Gauging the population

One of the first things to acknowledge is the fact that the document applies a realistic approach to the question of Ulaanbaatar’s population growth. Adequately gauging the pace and expected outcome of a city’s population growth is one of the most important estimates to be made when planning urban development. Although a seemingly basic parameter it remains dependent on multiple other, often at least partially unpredictable factors, which render future population estimates a complex and problematic matter. All of Ulaanbaatar’s past general plans have underestimated the actual chances of the rapid growth of the city’s population, which in effect rendered all of these documents outdated just a few years after they were introduced. Ulaanbaatar’s population oscillated around 100.000 when the city’s 1st General Plan began being enforced in 1953-1954. The document assumed that until 1975 the local population would not exceed 125.000. Already in 1960, the city counted 180.000 inhabitants. This resulted in the 2nd General Plan being introduced in 1961. It estimated that the population would reach a level of 230.000 to 250.000 in no less than 20-years time. In 1975 the city counted nearly 350.000 inhabitants, and so the 3rd General Plan was introduced (1976) which approximated that in 2000 Ulaanbaatar and its satellite settlements would have 550.000-600.000 inhabitants. By 1986, the city’s population topped 490.000 and so the 4th General Plan (introduced for the period 1986-2010) suggested that until 2010 the number would grow to 750.000 inhabitants for Ulaanbaatar and another 100.000 for satellite towns. In 2010 the city counted over 1.050.000 official inhabitants (with satellite towns adding another 100.000 to the number), and the DP 2020/2030 (introduced in 2013) estimated that the city should be expected to reach 1.235.000 (and nearly 300.000 in satellite towns) in 2020 and 1.400.000 (and around 360.000 in satellite towns) in 2030. Before the end of 2016 (i.e. three years later) the city’s population exceeded both of these estimates. As can be seen, all of the previous plans underestimated the rate of the population’s growth as well as ignored external factors influencing it. This, in turn, severely limited their capacity to react and adapt to the city’s constantly changing conditions.

Nowadays the city’s population is estimated to have exceeded 1.600.000, with Mongolia’s population over 3.200.000. The GDPC suggests an estimated 4.500.000 population for the whole country in 2040 with Ulaanbaatar accounting for 2.490.000. To date, this is Ulaanbaatar’s highest officially suggested population growth rate as it assumes an increase by around 64% of the current number in only 20 years. These numbers are confirmed by the official “Projection of Population 2015-2045” document published in 2017 by the National Statistics Office of Mongolia.

As stated above, the population growth estimates are but one of the most important factors to be taken into account in such a complex development undertaking as a city’s general or master plan. If a city’s current, let alone future, the population is gauged in an unreliable way, i.e. not taking into account the many predictable factors such as for example the current number of its unregistered inhabitants, it also becomes more vulnerable the fluctuations of factors which are not easily calculable and which might end up threatening many of the plan’s objectives. In this instance, at least from today’s point of view, the GDPC seems to propose a reliable estimate, one additionally backed by data calculated by other entities. If the GDPC’s flexible planning approach is also applied to the population number estimates treating them as rough suggestions to be constantly verified, rather than the highest amount of inhabitants possible to contain, it seems likely that the plan manages to overcome difficulties connected to the growing number of Ulaanbaatar’s citizens.

  1. The “Ulaanbaatar Belt”

Ulaanbaatar’s excessive centralization and population density along with the widening development gap between the capital and surrounding areas are seen as problems to be mitigated simultaneously. This is to be done through developing a belt of satellite towns. The process is supposed to include stimulating the growth of already existing urban centres such as Nalaikh, the redevelopment of smaller settlements such as Emeelt as well as the construction of new urban centres as exemplified by the planned establishment of Aerocity – the town to support the New Ulaanbaatar International Airport (NUBIA) built in the proximity of Ulaanbaatar. Although included already in the DP 2020/2030 as well as in the GDPC, the Maidar Ecocity project should not, at this point, be taken seriously. Around 15 smaller urban centres (including also Ulaanbaatar’s remote exclave districts of Bagakhangai and Baganuur) and the main urban area of Ulaanbaatar are jointly referred to as the “Ulaanbaatar Belt”. This “belt” is planned as combining heavy industry, logistics’ and transport hubs, agriculture, tourism and other service facilities. Even though some of these notions overlap in the AX2050 and GPDC, suggesting a higher probability of their implementation, it seems that the economic model for the “Ulaanbaatar Belt” has yet to be fully clarified.  Main advances in this area will most likely be related to the development of transport infrastructure – the new airport and new rail lines.

  1. Redevelopment of the ger districts

One of the main issues related to internal aspects of Ulaanbaatar’s uncontrolled overgrowth is the long-anticipated redevelopment of the so-called ger districts. Around 60-65% of Ulaanbaatar’s population live in infrastructurally underdeveloped areas spread along the northern fringe of the city centre and reaching several kilometres out north along the Selbe River valley. These areas, where the main mode of housing are either Mongolian ger or simple, mostly self-built houses, remain unconnected to the city’s plumbing and heating systems. Water is distributed through a network of freshwater well-kiosks. Although access to electricity remains less of a problem, there are still areas which remain off the grid. Road infrastructure is often limited and so are municipal and social services such as access to medical care and education facilities, waste management or law-enforcement activity. Because of the lack of central heating, the ger districts account for roughly 80% of Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution. A ban on burning raw coal introduced in May 2019 is said to have curbed the amount of smoke generated by the areas, yet it might be too early to judge based on current estimates.  Further studies need to be conducted in order to confirm the effect of the ban on local air quality.

The challenge of simultaneously catering services and infrastructure to the ger district areas whilst gradually liquidating them in order to facilitate their redevelopment is, of course, a complex problem and one which apparently continues to remain beyond the planning and executive capacities of the consecutive governments both municipal and national. Although it remains one of Ulaanbaatar’s most pressing and frequently highlighted problems, for several years it has not received the attention required. Efforts at resolving the issue of the ger districts’ redevelopment still remain confined mostly to the planners’ desk, i.e. far from actual implementation. The main strategies of redevelopment propose a division of the ger district areas into three zones and a gradual shift from their present land-use pattern of low-density auto-constructed housing and somewhat organically developed land divisions to more organized blocks of low- to mid-rise residential areas composed of affordable or public housing. Along with the current version of the redevelopment policies, so-called sub-centre facilities (i.e. district or neighbourhood infrastructural hubs) are to be built. These are to be further developed into actual sub-centres of the surrounding areas which will constitute local hubs for transportation, administration, trade and other services. The initial two of these facilities are painstakingly being assembled.

Here it is worth to remind that public housing policies have not been a strong side of the national and municipal governments of democratic Mongolia.  Additionally, several cases have surfaced in which citizens have been convinced to give up their land in order to clear the way for the ger district redevelopment works and have not since received replacement housing. Coupled with high apartment rents and an inflated real-estate sector, this creates a situation in which one’s willingness to support the authorities’ redevelopment efforts is lined with the justified fear of homelessness possibly induced by such cooperation. No wonder then that the stalemate status quo persists. One is but left to wonder whether the question of affordable housing will be solved by these redeveloped, north-side residential districts once they are finally developed. At the same time new privately-owned, high-end gated communities continue to grow in the southern part of the city.

What is more, in recent months the municipality has announced that all of its land reserves designated for private ownership have already been exhausted, meaning that no more municipal land could be acquired by private owners.  The question remains of whether local authorities have secured a sufficient amount of properly located corridors and plots required to locate infrastructure (such as arterial roads along with power, heating, water or telecommunication lines and related facilities) and carry out other development projects. The issue of securing the required amount of strategically-located land is not being sufficiently highlighted and ends up being overlooked in the midst of the city’s all too frequent real-estate scams. Despite the governments’ right to nationalize, under justified circumstances, private-owned land, unfortunately, as of today there seems to be little willingness to apply this legal mechanism to the advantage of the ger districts’ economically disenfranchised populations.

  1. Decentralization of Ulaanbaatar

Another issue discussed by the GDPC is decentralizing Ulaanbaatar. This is to be achieved by developing several local so-called sub-centres outside of Ulaanbaatar’s downtown area. They are to combine infrastructural facilities (as those mentioned above), municipal institutions, service and trade centres along with transport hubs. Such an approach is supposed to simultaneously provide stepping stones for the redevelopment of ger districts and through allowing the inhabitants of fringe districts to bypass Ulaanbaatar’s downtown area, decrease the city’s traffic congestion. The currently ongoing relocation of some of the municipality’s main offices to the newly-built facility in the Yaarmag area of Ulaanbaatar is part of enforcing this strategy. In order for it to function properly not only the sub-centres themselves but also the larger ger district areas and especially proper road infrastructure allowing redirecting the automobile traffic need to be developed.

  1. Road network

As hinted above, for decentralizing notions to succeed an improved and more integrated road system needs to be developed. In this context, the most important improvement to the road network as proposed by the GDPC seems to be a chain of connections between currently fragmented northern fringe areas of the city. Most of these northern ger districts occupy valleys divided by hill ridges; thus, regular transport possibilities between several of them remain limited. Constructing a northern chain or roads would help change this situation. Apart from that, a division of the road network into three categories – “horizontal”, “vertical” and “circle” roads seems to be the main improvement proposed by the GDPC. Between 2020 and 2030, the length of roads per sq. km is to increase from 3.6 km to 4 km. Many roads are to be laid anew. The “horizontal” (i.e. E-W) and “vertical” (i.e. N-S) roads are to serve the intra-city and intra-district communication, whereas the “circle” ones, also basing mostly on the existing network, are supposed to serve as ring roads (or at least semi-ring roads depending on the amount of interchanges to replace junctions with traffic lights). Plans for improving the standard of the city’s central artery can be read from the fact that it has clearly been marked as a segment of the bigger (regional and national) transit corridor. No project of a new ring road encircling the whole urban area of Ulaanbaatar is included in the GDPC however, a planned highway has been market west of the city. The northern ger district roads mentioned above would allow exiting the planned highway northwest of Ulaanbaatar and circling the city all the way to Nalaikh, but the quality and capacity of these smaller roads would be the main factor determining their capacity to facilitate such traffic.

In order to handle the ever-increasing traffic, a system of frequent interchanges (flyovers, underpasses) needs to be developed along the city’s main traffic corridors. Unless an RBT (Rapid Bus Transport) system operating with an improved fleet is introduced along the city’s main artery, Peace Avenue, and possibly the few other roads capable of accommodating such a feature, one can only hope for a decrease in overall traffic congestion anytime soon. At the same time, eliminating dirt roads at least from more centrally-located residential areas remains an important issue. Solving it seems to be possible only when the redevelopment of the ger districts is approached in an integrated way, i.e. one along which land is also secured for future arterial roads and accompanying crucial power, sewage, freshwater and heating infrastructure and facilities. As can be seen, the solutions proposed for Ulaanbaatar’s various problems remain tightly interlocked blocking each other and rendering inconsiderate infrastructural undertakings a possible waste of time and resources

  1. Bogdkhan uul rail corridor

Planned already in the DP 2020/2030, in its current version it is supposed to comprise of two lines running south of the Bogdkhan uul but along slightly different trajectories – a light rail line for passenger transport and a regular one dedicated mostly to transit traffic of freight trains. The former is supposed to secure a connection between Tolgoit in Ulaanbaatar and a logistics’ centre south of Nalaikh on its way passing through the satellite town of Aerocity and supposedly also Maidar Ecocity. The latter one is to enable cargo trains to bypass the city; thus, it is to fork off from the trans-Mongolian rail line around the logistics’ facility in Emeelt. It will further continue towards the NUBIA cargo terminal and from there southwards until Bagakhangai where it is to join back with the main rail line. Decreasing the rail traffic going through the city centre would help manage automobile traffic congestion as well as create more suitable conditions for devising efficient intra-city rail communication. One such initiative was undertaken in the previous years but ended up unsuccessful due to a lack of integration into the wider scheme of Ulaanbaatar’s public transport system.

  1. Changes in the zoning divisions

Some other propositions of the GDPC include updating zoning divisions of the city. The city is to be divided into seven zones instead of the current eight. Apart from merging two parallel Western zones into one bigger and slightly updating some of the zones’ borders, the current divisions seem to have been upheld in the GDPC. Additionally, however, in the place of the DP 2020/2030’s 47 so-called “neighbourhood [planning] units” (i.e. smallest planning units of a city-wide planning scale) the GDPC proposes a division into a number of 117 Area [Planning] Units:

– 62 built-up residential area APUs (32 NPUs previously)

– 43 ger district residential area APUs (10 NPUs previously)

– 12 industrial APUs (5 NPUs previously).

Ulaanbaatar is, of course, in a state of constant sprawl but one should not understand that the area occupied by the city has more than doubled in recent years. APUs are units considerably smaller than NPUs – a change which is supposed to increase the level of supervision possible to exercise over these areas, their development and growth.

  1. Problems unaddressed
  2. a) Ecological impact

Surprisingly enough, even despite the various pollution issues and largely uncontrolled urban sprawl of the fringe areas being mentioned amongst the city’s most burning problems, quite a little attention has been paid to the question of minimalizing Ulaanbaatar’s negative impact on its surroundings. Environmental issues, stressed in both the DP 2020/2030 and AX2050, in the GDPC surface on a limited number of occasions, almost exclusively in the context of conditions or resources required to secure the city’s sustainability. This hints to a resource-oriented perspective on the natural environment undermining the GDPC’s claims of striving towards a state of a “livable city”. One cannot help but interpret this situation in the context of a possible shift between development visions as introduced in the DP 2020/2030 and GDPC with the disappearance of explicitly pro-ecological slogans from the latter of the two. Hopefully, this possibly neglectful approach will be subject to verification and the issues of natural environment protection and minimalizing the city’s influence on the surrounding areas find their way into the main prerogatives of the final 2040 General Development Plan. As of now (i.e. the way it is introduced in the GDPC) the main pro-environmental initiative proposed seems to be forming a green belt around the northern frontier of the urban area. Somewhat surprisingly, it is the AX2050 that seems more concerned about the city’s environmental impact.

  1. b) Heritage preservation

Among the issues insufficiently addressed by the GDPC is also the problem of preserving tangible heritage, especially in the form of archeological sites, architectural monuments and historical urban layouts. In recent years, Ulaanbaatar has suffered greatly from real-estate scams, popular breaches of construction norms and a generally unhealthy approach of so-called “new urbanism”. The city’s already very few historical heritage sites are deteriorating and disappearing at an alarming rate, mostly being replaced by service centres, commercial office establishments or high-end residential districts. This tendency has accelerated in the past months with several historical buildings (most of them housing museums or other cultural institutions) being torn down even against the popular protest. Ulaanbaatar is a city with relatively little tangible heritage and one still lacking a fully developed urban identity. At the same time, it possesses a unique yet fragile intangible heritage. In such circumstances paying careful attention to protecting these gravely endangered cultural values should remain a concern of utmost importance. If it is to become a “livable city”, Ulaanbaatar will need all the history it is capable of preserving.

  1. c) Lack of “Minimum Plan”

As will become obvious from the below paragraphs, one worrying shortage of the GDPC is its “all or nothing” approach which does not seem to propose any hierarchy in prioritizing project objectives. It would be reassuring to know that the architects of Ulaanbaatar’s development have also calculated for a “minimum plan” of priority projects required in order for the city to be able to sustain itself in case of financial or other difficulties preventing the default course of the 2040 General Development Plan’s implementation. Hopefully, the final strategy, as flexible as it has been conceptualized in the GDPC, will introduce a clear and down-to-earth gradation of the plan’s objectives. Such an approach could help mitigate circumstances, posing the biggest hazard to Ulaanbaatar’s development planning. These are described in the paragraphs below.

  1. d) Lack of a proper legislative framework to ensure project implementation

The last and unfortunately, also the most alarming group of the problem is connected to the overall unrealistic scale of many of the development perspectives discussed above. It happens all too often in Mongolia that grand visions continue to be proposed even despite the widely acknowledged fact that they are very unlikely or even impossible to actually be implemented. Such will most likely be the situation with the hydroelectric power plant, Maidar Ecocity, Aerocity or the Ulaanbaatar metropolitan area in general. These, as well as several other projects proposed in one or both of the documents discussed in this paper, are likely to remain confined to paper. The nature of this problem is, of course, complex but the main factors preventing grand infrastructural investments from being successfully carried out are as follows:

– state-owned enterprises are treated as private- or faction-owned by whoever manages to control them

– due to the struggles for control over state and municipal enterprises and agencies, the long-term planning and implementation capacities of these official bodies are being severely depleted which then leads to hastiness becoming an innate element of strategical planning and infrastructure development

– development projects are treated as tools of political leverage rather than solutions to real-life problems

– there seems to be greater demand for and higher pressure placed on presenting projects rather than implementing them (it is faster, easier and the short-term political effects of these steps seem to be comparable)

– the above factors influence favoring seemingly impressive yet obviously unfeasible projects and creating a vicious cycle spawning more unrealistic projects required to patch up previously unrealized promises

– there seems to be little understanding of the financial aspects of large-scale infrastructural projects; investments are not coordinated or calculated in accordance with other projects/factors/budgets; adequately tailoring budgets coming from various state and private sources remains problematic

– the legal framework provides various loopholes for many such practices as well as a general proliferation of cronyism and a tendency to defraud infrastructural budgets

– the country lacks legal tools for securing the implementation of infrastructural projects (such as effective penalization of the above-described practices).

Of course, it is not city planners to be blamed for this state of affairs. It should, however, be acknowledged that aligning their development projects with the requirements of populist politics is contradictory to urban planning’s social-responsibility policies.

Today, an atmosphere of vagueness surrounds many political promises. When coupled with a feeling of popular helplessness among the citizens, it leads to an even wider acceptance of obvious instances of corruption and abuse of political privileges. The described vulnerabilities are willingly exploited by Mongolian oligarchs on a nearly systemic basis, oftentimes preventing the implementation of much required infrastructural investments. A professional consulted during the course of writing this paper stressed that the GDPC was designed under high pressure from political circles and that the proposed strategies were insufficiently consulted with professionals, policymakers as well as both the general public and smaller communities. The teams responsible were not provided with tools sufficient to devise financially and temporally feasible, politically independent and inclusive strategies adjusted to Mongolia’s and Ulaanbaatar’s entangled situation. If not taken into account during the next stages of the 2040GDP’s design, these shortcomings are bound to manifest themselves as failures repeatedly surfacing during the next twenty years.

  1. CONCLUSION

As could be seen from the above commentary on the GDPC’s features, the vision of Ulaanbaatar city proposed in the document remains largely in accord with the long-term national development vision as clarified by the AX2050. This should, of course, come as no surprise, since experts responsible for the GDPC participated in devising the AX2050. Nevertheless, it is important to note that most of the key ideas included in the GDPC, which was completed before works on the AX2050 commenced, have found their way into the latter documents, meaning that they were found compatible with the wider policymaking trajectory devised for the whole country. Additionally, some questions which the GDPC failed to sufficiently discuss have been addressed by the AX2050. Both of the documents should be seen as extensions of some of the main notions proposed in the DP 2020/2030. Nowadays is often summarized as very unrealistic even if a somewhat visionary document, the DP 2020/2030 was designed in a period when Mongolia’s economy was soaring. Not long after that plan was introduced, the country suffered from a severe economic slowdown. This affected the plan’s implementation. The methodological approach to development as a flexible process extending into the past is what differentiates these new documents from the previous development plans. Hopefully, it will cause Ulaanbaatar’s next general development plan to adopt a more realistic approach to the relationship between vision and implementation.

It can be expected that the 2040 General Development Plan for Ulaanbaatar will mostly draw from the GDPC, additionally supplemented by or modified according to some notions presented in the AX2050. The general trajectory it will propose seems to have largely been determined. We are still to see whether the architects of the 2040 General Development Plan will adopt a more pragmatic approach to envisioning the city’s future instead of catering to the needs of Mongolia’s political and business circles. The GDPC does not seem to offer an answer to the question just yet. Also, the question remains whether the final (2020-)2040 General Development Plan will actually be introduced in 2020?

This paper attempted to highlight continuities as well as discontinuities in the city’s planning strategies and pose questions related to the strengths and weaknesses of long-term, unified development strategies. In such a brief analysis, only a general overview of the development trends can be offered. When scrutinized in more detail, multiple additional aspects of the documents and strategies could be discussed. Once acknowledged that although produced by professional urban planners, the GDPC is more of a synthetic, conceptual document and is one stage of the planning process rather than a final urban development plan it becomes clear that also critics from outside of the urban planning community can and should inquire into the strategies and solutions proposed by the Conception. Such outside perspectives are also important because it is often documents like these and their internal narratives that hint at (or even determine) visions of progress and development preferred by the authorities thus, revealing important shifts in near-future policymaking as well as country’s politics in general.

Paweł Szczap

Analyst on Mongolia. Interpreter, awarded with four scholarships at the National University of Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar, he is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Warsaw. He specialises in modern Mongolia's social and infrastructural issues such as nationalism, development of the mining industry and critical infrastructure, urban processes. He also researches urbanisation in other Asian countries. Languages: Polish, English, Mongolian.

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