Woody Packard

Words + Pictures

Eco City

Buddha is Biggest
Planted on a road cut that skirts the west-north-west edge of town are the words Eco City, which I walked past several times before my curiosity caused me to look them up, and connect several unconnected and mysterious dots. Mongolia's Maidar Eco City is a new project which combines what surely has to be the world's biggest stuppa and Buddha with a totally green planned city, complete with bike paths and walkways, planned parking, an arterial street system, and lots and lots of greenery. At an office in the Ganan Tegchinlen Monastery you can become a donor to help get the Stuppa + Buddha parts of the project off the ground. A sign outside (and also in Sukhbaatar Square) compares the size of the Buddha and Stuppa to several of the world's well known monuments, including the Statue of Liberty, which they will dwarf.

Reading the literature on its web site, it's clear that Mongolia's Eco City is meant to solve the problems of Ulaanbaatar, which are many, by abandoning it and moving to the other, uninhabited, side of Bogd Khaan Mountain to the south.

Songino Khairkhan District
The Eco City plan comes several years after a United Nations/CEPAL report, from 2007, which sums up the problems facing Ulaanbaatar today, more than seven years later, and probably well into the future. Some of the problems listed as being solvable by relocating ger district residents to apartments or to other new housing are: traffic congestion, ground water pollution from the use of pit toilets, and the most noticeable for all who visit Ulaanbaatar in the cold season, air pollution from the many individual coal-burning stoves heating each ger or small house. In this, the most advanced city in the country, a very large portion of the residents still get their water by pushing a cart or carrying jugs to the nearest water station.

Both plans deal with the overwhelming problem of adding or rebuilding roads, utilities, and other modern infrastructure by vacating and replacing these districts rather than trying to accommodate existing residents by bringing services to the districts—Eco City displaces residents to an entirely new city, while the UN plan shuffles district residents from one area to another. And this, for me, begs the question: What will all these people do? While the fact of a nomadic life disappears when a family owns a lot, the idea of a nomadic life is hard one to uproot, especially in a country whose traditions and culture are built on it. Even though permanent, a small plot of land still gives a place to set up a ger, and at the edges of town, to graze a few animals, something that can never be done in an apartment. Although the structures look different in the United States, you can see the same desires expressed at the edges of most large cities, especially in the west. And the effort to avoid the problems of the city by picking up and moving away from it sound all too familiar.

I asked someone connected to the real estate business about Maidar Eco City, who said that although it is up and running, it does have a few problems. It is expensive to live in, and caters to an exclusive population. Isolated as it is, you run into all of Ulaanbaatar's traffic problems and more when you need to interact with the rest of Mongolia's business community, which still remains to the north of Bogd Khaan mountain. It's only source of water comes from deep wells. And, being in a natural basin, sewage must be pumped out continually. When I check the location on the Maidar City web site and then tried to locate it on Google maps, I was unable to find it.

The transition from rural to urban has never been easy, and here, as in the United States, many people still like to have their space. Walking through some of these districts the problems are very visible, but so are the personal choices that have kept people attached to this way of living.

An additional note. Browsing through the reports on Ulaanbaatar's urban problems online makes it clear that many countries and organizations have an interest in Mongolia's development, including South Korea, Japan, and an organization representing real estate developers. At least one UN report takes seriously the fate of poor residents of the ger districts.

Close Story—Back to Pictures

Eco City

Click below to page through enlarged images or read the story.

Above Zaisan Hill

Ger District, Songino Khairkhan

Stationary Nomads

Mixed Use Buildings

Houses, Songino Khairkhan

Layered Neighborhood

Waste Dump

Master Plan

Making Heat

Toward Downtown

Thick Air

Ganan Tegchinlen Monestary

Chingeltei Monument

Traffic + Air Pollution

Heading North

Ikh Toiruu, North-West

Ikh Toiruu, North-East

Chingis Avenue

Peace Avenue, West

Peace Avenue, Evening Traffic