Development strategies for Ulaanbaatar according to the conception for the city’s 2040 General Development Plan – part 1

In the first part of this analysis of Ulaanbaatar’s winning 2040 General Development Plan Conception (GDPC) I look into the historical preconditions for the city’s planned development as well as present the legislative climate in which works on Ulaanbaatar’s future development strategies have recently found themselves.

Instytut Boyma 27.01.2020

In the first part of this analysis of Ulaanbaatar’s winning 2040 General Development Plan Conception (GDPC) I look into the historical preconditions for the city’s planned development as well as present the legislative climate in which works on Ulaanbaatar’s future development strategies have recently found themselves. The second part of this analysis will look into the actual development strategies proposed by the winning GDPC document. Such an approach seems justified in the light of the GDPC’s prerogative of embracing planned development as a process encompassing not only the city’s present situation and future plans and strategies but also a reflection on the city’s past development endeavors understood as a starting point for further planning works.


In 2019 Ulaanbaatar is approaching the final year of its planned development. The current general development plan approved in 2013 was set for a period of seven years (2013-2020) with additional longer term development strategies projected until the year 2030. Setting such a time frame was supposed to offer a buffer period for switching from the current to the next development plan and at the same time draw a wider time perspective for the impact of developments to be completed until 2020. Unfortunately, in recent years many professionals have criticized the municipal authorities’ lack of control over enacting the city’s development plans of which not even half have been successfully realized.

In October of 2018 a competition was announced for developing a concept framework and strategy propositions for the city’s next general development plan. Several documents were submitted out of which the winning project was selected.

However, after awarding the winning conception proposition further works related to developing the city’s new general plan have recently been brought to a halt. The reasons for this unexpected delay originate on a higher legislative plain. Recently Mongolia’s policy makers became engaged in a process of reviewing the country’s various level planning policies dating from the last three decades. This ambitious project targeting national as well as regional planning and development legislature was initiated by prime minister Khürelsükh in an attempt to devise an integrated long-term, country-wide and multi-level development policy. The unprecedented move aspires to look back at more than 200 documents devised since Mongolia’s turn to democratic rule and the free market economic model. It’s aim is to provide data required for devising three new policy documents that would guide integrated long-term development: Mongolia’s Long-Term Development Strategy for the years 2020-2045, Mongolia’s Zoned Development Strategy and the General Project of Population Naturalization and Settlement Development. November 2019 has been set as the deadline for the Long-Term Development Policy Working Group to present the outcomes of its work. We still have to wait until the impact of the Working Group’s research results on the new development plan can be determined. However, in the last days of October 2019, even despite the ongoing works of the Working Group, the general assumptions proposed by the winning GDPC have been discussed and approved by the City Council. Apart from the generally plausible fact of works on the city’s planned development not being brought to a stillbirth this also means that the GDPC will most likely need to be reconsidered in the light of the Working Group’s policy review’s final outcomes and consequent higher level legislative projects.

On the official level this impressive revision initiative aims at integrating previously disjointed legislature as well as seeking procedural holes preventing implementation of various policies. Unofficially however it is widely seen as the Peoples’ Party’s pre-2020 parliamentary election move to secure the electorate’s votes. Despite the project’s assumed short-term conclusion which would enable moving on with different regional- as we as national-level policy-making (including the GDPC) it can be expected that in reality it will rather bring the vast body of planning works as well as their implementation to a prolonged halt lacking a constructive conclusion.

In effect it is most probable that the outcomes presented by the Working Group will render the present GDPC obsolete and in need of a ground redesign. Regardless of the future of the GDPC in order to understand its historical preconditions it is good to know more about the development of Ulaanbaatar in the past.


Ulaanbaatar’s history starts in 1639 when it was brought to life as quarters for the newly enthroned head of Mongolian Tibetan Buddhism – Zanabazar. Throughout the 380 years of its history this initially nomadic settlement changed location over 20 times and grew significantly to become home to over 1.5 million people i.e. half of the population of Mongolia. It settled in its present location in the valley of the Tuul River at the confluence of the Tuul and Selbe Rivers between 1778 and 1855. Until the mid 1920s Khüree, as Ulaanbaatar was called in the past, was a peculiar religious encampment spatially planned out according to traditions dating back many centuries and stemming from a spatial scheme similar to that of the Mongolian ger (or yurt) – the basic nomadic household. Gers also remained the main housing mode in Khüree. Changes which opened Khüree’s march towards becoming a contemporary urban establishment were brought by the People’s Revolution of 1921, the consequent establishment of the People’s Government and renaming the city to Ulaanbaatar in 1924. Measures were taken to increase the city’s industrial base and policy-level changes were introduced that would reorient the city and its new facilities towards the common people, not the higher or religious social classes. The first larger attempts to organize the city space were introduced in the 1930s and 1940s. At the same time the break of these two decades was a period of significant slow down in Ulaanbaatar’s urban development, even before it managed to gain proper momentum. In the late 1930s the People’s Government went on to do away with the remains of the feudal society purging big portions of the population mostly connected to the Buddhist church and those it referred to as feudals. As it was seen at the time in order to create space for modern development the remains of the old society needed to be disposed of. Not only the social structures but also the spatial structure of Ulaanbaatar was seen as requiring radical intervention. Religious establishments which at the time formed a significant part of the city’s built up area were either eradicated or taken over by the institutions of the communist state apparatus. Most structures at the time were built from wood.

These changes created space for growth, re-envisioning and the redevelopment of Ulaanbaatar’s inner-city. However, throughout the period of the II World War, most of Mongolia’s industrial  capacity was utilized to support the Soviet war fronts. It was only after the war that the city’s development gained momentum in a more organized manner – the period following 1945 was dubbed the Period of Peaceful Construction. During that time many projects were realized that determined both the spatial and strategical directions of future developments. The year 1953 brought the introduction of Ulaanbaatar’s first general plan along which the city’s centre was finally replanned, gradually acquiring the main spatial features which until this form the base of its spatial structure. Consecutive general plans followed which laid the way to developing Ulaanbaatar into a spread out urban organism, with a growing industrial base and infrastructure as well as a steadily increasing housing stock. In the years 1961 and 1974 two plants manufacturing modules for prefabricated housing units were opened and the construction of residential districts soared. In consequence the percentage of the people living in gers steadily decreased even despite the rapidly growing overall urban population. Landscape features were being adjusted to the needs of the developing city – the western branch of the Selbe River was drained, and two hills on the eastern and western edges of the city centre were dug through to make way for roads connecting outlying districts. Green areas were established and public transport services further developed. The city was planned and developed according to modernist schemes and zoning strategies contained in four consecutive general plans (1953, 1961, 1976, 1986). These plans were enacted to different extent throughout the second half of the 20th century. Modernist urban planning of the socialist period came to an end in 1990. For over a decade following the fall of the communist state Ulaanbaatar did not have a general plan that would channel its growth.

And so just as the socialist general plans guided the city’s development in a spatially thought out, long-term manner, what happened during the 1990s was just the opposite. Due to to economic and infrastructural crises the country was experiencing at the time, Ulaanbaatar’s urban environs started to deteriorate both in spatial as well as social terms. Consecutive improvements in the economic situation caused the city to start developing anew but planning was still absent. A big part of the capital’s downtown and neighboring districts’ land was grabbed by a relatively small group of people mostly connected to the business and political circles. Slowly a new scheme was gaining ground – one favoring those with leverage to go through with their investments even despite the common interest and architectural and planning regulations.

In 2001 a new plan was introduced. However, after a few years, following a request of the Mongolian government, the document was evaluated by JICA. In 2009 a report from the study was presented, one making multiple recommendations.[1] Substantial changes were introduced to the plan in effect rendering it into a new document – Ulaanbaatar’s 6th general development plan. It was introduced in 2013 as the “Ulaanbaatar 2020 Master Plan and Development Approaches for 2030”. It remains in action today, formally serving as a blueprint for the city’s growth until the year 2030. After a new general plan is developed from the current GDPC, it should replace the current Plan. As will be shown in the second part of this analysis, the present GPDC draws from this 2020/2030 document to a certain extent. As of today there is no other strategical umbrella document that would guide the city’s development post-2020. The present plan presents only recommendations or “development perspectives”. Thus, in the face of heavily promoted and enforced decentralization policies, themselves crucial attempts at decreasing the overload faced by Ulaanbaatar’s downtown, a lack of a new plan coupled with the presently prevailing manner of uncoordinated development and management of the city would support and not mitigate further fracturing of it’s internal structure. In this sense the much promoted establishing of sub-centers, if not integrated properly into the bigger scheme of Ulaanbaatar’s functioning, might contribute to a further dismantling the city.

It should be stressed that despite a construction boom beginning in the early 2000s not much was done to improve the city’s public housing stock. This organic growth stimulated mostly by the private sector continued with rapidly increasing pace, both inwards and outwards. Until today the inward growth manifests itself in an absolutely unplanned manner of build up unabiding to norms. Wherever unused or easily clearable space can be acquired a new structure is sure to be erected shortly, under the name of service improvement (e.g. new institutional headquarters replacing old ones) or a more profitable land use (e.g. shopping malls instead of local markets). Often this is done to simply channel idle money into the construction or real estate markets. District of neighborhood development plans are often not respected and neither are safety norms and architectural standards related to a given structure’s impact on its surroundings. The city’s spatial arrangement of the previous decades is secured mostly by the its road system – one too simple to be further limited. Vistas planned out and realized during the socialist period supposed to offer a feeling of open space are disappearing one by one and block planning has deteriorated and new investments are replacing  public space and green areas at a rapid pace. Due to such and similar breaches in fundamental norms of securing sustainable planning the state of Ulaanbaatar has greatly deteriorated and continues further on this downward spiral. Even with new infrastructure appearing and improvements being made, the city feels far more crowded, built up, full of cars and generally unplanned than one would suspect. The growing stock of half developed concrete carcasses – still-born effects of the construction boom spread around the city – contributes to the general feeling of a legal and spatial chaos. So do frequent instances of public land grabbing by private investors or a lack of concern for the city’s very limited tangible heritage (e.g. architectural monuments, historical structures etc).

Outward growth concentrating around the fringe areas takes form of a specific kind of sprawl, namely the constant growth of ger districts. These areas consist mostly of self-constructed structures and Mongolian gers fenced into courtyards. They remain home to over 60% of Ulaanbaatar’s population. A significant part of the inhabitants of the ger districts is made up of middle to low income households – the city’s working class, petty entrepreneurs or in part also the unemployed. New residential districts are of course also being developed, these however target the wealthy. Even despite their often overwhelming scale, in the face of the vast stretches of the ger districts, these new residential districts might seem spatially insignificant.

Examples of more expensive residential districts by means of gentrification affecting the overall the face of bigger areas include those developed at Zaisan or Nükht as well as the area between the parallel stretches of the Selbe River (in this part of its run also called the Dund gol or Middle River) and Tuul River. Examples of sprawl connecting previously separate built-up areas or settlements include the area of the city’s sprawl towards the Chinggis Khaan Airport and Yaarmag ger district in the West, the spread of Bayanzürkh district’s outskirts towards the satellite-town cum exclave district of Ulaanbaatar, Nalaikh in the East or the northward growth of the ger districts along the valley of the Selbe River – spatially already very much indistinguishable from the allotment and dacha belt located north from the city.

In the face of a lack of reasonable solutions that could contain the situation of the ger districts’ constant growth and most importantly solve the problem of infrastructural shortages in those areas  remaining initial reasons behind the ger district-generated air pollution, in 2017 the municipal authorities introduced an in-city migration ban. At first the duration of the ban was set for one year but before the end of that period of time it was extended until 2020, This law, effectively limiting the constitutional rights of citizens in relation to free movement, did not succeed in actually stopping in-city migration, nor did it stop the ger districts’ sprawl, their population growth or succeed to solve the problem of air pollution – the main political motive behind the ban. By rendering the city’s unregistered inhabitants into squatter-settlers deprived of the opportunity to legalize their stay in Ulaanbaatar at least until 2020, the ban managed to successfully exclude specific portions of the city’s population from participating in the legal framework of urban citizenship. Another ban – a permanent one prohibiting the use of raw coal in heating stoves was introduced in April 2019, again without proper preparations yet supposedly giving the city time to adapt to the new circumstances before the next colder period. Already in October 2019 multiple cases of poisoning with carbon monoxide fumes from the new processed coal fuel have been reported.

Significant infrastructure improvements visible throughout the city in recent years still appear more as chaotic actions hoping to mitigate the city’s burning problems rather than organized and planned efforts to fulfill a sustainable development strategy – one obviously lacking.

Niniejszy materiał znajdą Państwo w Kwartalniku Boyma nr – 3/2020

Paweł Szczap

Analityk ds. Mongolii, tłumacz, doktorant na Wydziale Orientalistycznym Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, czterokrotny stypendysta Państwowego Uniwersytetu Mongolskiego w Ułan Bator. Specjalizuje się w zagadnieniach dotyczących współczesnej Mongolii, takich jak nacjonalizm, rozwój przemysłu wydobywczego i infrastruktury, procesy urbanizacyjne. Zajmuje się także urbanizacją w innych krajach Azji. Języki: polski, angielski, mongolski

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