Eco Town: Building community in Ulaanbaatar’s outskirts

Ecotown

On a hillside overlooking the western end of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, rests Eco Town, a community served by an organization that is trying to improve life in the city’s unplanned settlements known as ger districts. Eco Town is the name of an NGO run by Odgerel Gansukh, a man who has a vision of community development that he hopes will catch on and “spread like a virus” around the city and even around the country. He sees the many problems people are facing in the ger districts, but he also sees the people living there as the sources of solutions, not large international organizations like the World Bank.

Ger districts are named for the ger, or yurts, that are the primary choice of housing for people who move to the city from the countryside. They are made from felt stretched over a wooden frame and can be set up or taken down in a matter of hours, ideal for the nomadic lifestyle in the countryside. There, they are heated in the winter with dried livestock dung. But once people move to the city, usually because they have lost their livestock, they lose their main source of fuel and end up burning coal, and sometimes even trash, rubber, plastic, or anything that will burn. This is the source of most of Ulaanbaatar’s winter air pollution, which is some of the worst in the world.

The ger districts are growing rapidly, too. Over the past few decades, the number of disasters known as dzuds have been more frequent. Dzuds in general are very harsh winter conditions, usually following a dry summer and fall. There are different kinds of dzud: White dzud, when snow falls so thickly that livestock can’t reach the grass; black dzud, when after a period of drought not enough snow falls to protect the pasture and provide water for the livestock; iron dzud, when thawing is followed by a freeze, so that the pasture is covered in thick ice that livestock can’t dig through; and cold dzud, when temperatures drop and cause livestock to burn through their fat reserves. Each dzud produces a similar result: massive livestock deaths. People lose their livelihoods and move to town or cities to find work. Many end up gravitating towards Ulaanbaatar (UB), because that’s where most of the country’s economic opportunities lie. The population of the city has grown massively as a result, beyond the capacity of the city’s infrastructure or the city government to cope. Now, around 60-70% of the city’s 1.3 million population live in the ger districts. They have spread haphazardly onto the hillsides surrounding the city, making a patchwork backdrop of fences, white gers, and brick and wood houses to the city’s highrise apartment complexes and business towers.

Eco Town isn’t easy to find if your sense of the city’s geography is poor, as both my taxi driver and I learned. It’s on Google Maps, and the route looks almost direct, until you get there. What should have been a 50 minute drive on a Friday morning turned into nearly two hours of mostly going in the wrong direction. My taxi driver was new and didn’t know the city very well, so even though I had directions in Mongolian on my phone from Odgerel, we ended up overshooting the neighborhood considerably at first. He spoke a few times with Odgerel, and a few times with his company’s dispatcher, and finally stopped and asked someone for directions, using the information on my phone. Then, once we found the right dirt road leading up the hillside, it was apparent that we’d need Odgerel’s help to find the actual place, as roads split and curved and didn’t at all make the straight line that Google Maps thought they should.

But, with help, and eventually with Odgerel himself driving down the hillside to find us, we made it to the offices of Nomongoo Garage Door, the business that Odgerel operates and from which he runs the NGO. The taxi driver agreed to wait for me while I talked with Odgerel and toured Eco Town; he’d bring me back to MIU now that he knew the way.

It was a brisk autumn day, with white and grey clouds studding the deep blue sky, and the view from the place was stunning. Odgerel led me into his office, a two-room, somewhat haphazard structure attached to a large workshop. He moved his garage door company, which is seven years old, to the ger district to pursue his other passion of helping the community that has developed in the area where he grew up.

Odgerel can remember when the area was just grassland, where he used to play as a child, catching grasshoppers and rolling down the hill. Now, it is divided up into khashaa, or fenced-in family compounds, lining rough dirt roads. Some of the yards contain ger, but many of them also contain baishin, or detached houses, built from wood and brick, with colorful orange, red, or blue corrugated roofs. One two-story house is covered in the Styrofoam insulation often used here, its exterior walls unfinished.

“Did you see the road construction going on down the hill?” he asked. I nodded yes. “Eco Town is pretty much everything from there up this way.” There are 350 families in the community, and his two-year-old NGO is dedicated to helping this community solve its problems. In the first room of the office, which has a couple of tables with a few boxes of books, a vacuum cleaner, and a baby stroller, he points to one of the posters on the walls, explaining that Eco Town has nine operating principles. He only gets around to explaining three of them before launching into a discussion of the specific projects he is working on. One of the principles is a circular economy, using local materials and putting proceeds back into the community. The second is sustainable community development, showing people how to meet their needs in the most sustainable way possible. The third is energy efficiency, inspired by Earthship a passive solar house designed by architect Michael Reynolds in Taos, New Mexico. Odgerel briefly points to a “rocket stove” on one side of the room, an energy efficient stove that he abandoned once he found out that passive solar heating was possible in the ger districts.

The passive solar wall

The office itself is a model for using passive solar heating. The south-facing wall is more like a greenhouse, made from salvaged glass, now covered in black mesh sunblock fabric for the summer but capable of keeping the office “warm enough” in the winter as long as the sun is shining. He explained that in late December and early January, the darkest months of the year, they still have to turn on space heaters. Like everything else he is working on, improvements are possible. Even so, the office shows people what can be done with the power of the sun.

The office is spacious, and a woman is working at another desk when we come in, though she soon leaves for lunch. I was over an hour late for our 11:00 appointment because of detours with the taxi. Odgerel’s desk holds books and binders of project materials, in addition to his large computer screen and laptop. His “coffee table books,” as he laughingly calls them, include Michael Reynolds’ Earthship: How to Build Your Own and Water from the Sky, as well as Sandbag Shelter and Eco-Village by Nader Khalili. These books are his inspiration for energy efficient building, which he sees as the best way to solve the air pollution problem in the ger areas.

Eco Town and the grounds of the Nomongoo Garage Door workshop are littered with practical experiments in energy efficient building. The back walls of the workshop are made of either tires or sandbags. As Odgerel explained, both options work, but the tires are expensive, at around 800-1000 Mongolian tugrug each, and more labor intensive because they need to be collected and hauled to the site. Several companies are already using recycled tires for playground material and retaining walls, and this has driven the cost of old tires up. Earth, on the other hand, is plentiful, and old flour and rice bags can be purchased from bakers and restaurants for 100-200 MNT a piece.

Sandbag and tire walls

These energy efficiency efforts are personal for him, he was quick to point out. “I live in the ger district, and I have lung disease. I have a three-year-old and a one-year-old kid, and just last week my youngest was hospitalized with lung disease.” This is an all-too-common story in Ulaanbaatar, where hospitals are often full of children suffering from pneumonia and other illnesses. “It’s the reality of our life here. We lose 500 kids from age zero to five every year because of pollution.” As people build more energy efficient housing, they will rely on their coal-burning stoves less, or even eliminate them entirely. This will give the city’s children a chance at a healthier life.

Odgerel also wants to improve children’s lives in other ways. One of his focuses is education; with no land set aside for kindergartens or schools, educational opportunities in the ger areas are lacking. There are 2,000 preschool-age children in the khoroo, and 1,700 kids don’t have access to a preschool. The Mongolian constitution says that it’s the government’s responsibility to provide all kids with education, but the ger areas’ growth far outstripped the government’s capacity to build new schools. And the lack of kindergartens has a knock-on effect for families. If kids can’t go to kindergarten, one of the parents can’t work, and it cuts the household income in half.

To address this, Eco Town is planning to start building two kindergartens, a small one for 15-20 children in a “Gership” modeled after Reynold’s Earthship, but in the form of a ger. Parents will participate in building it, so they learn how to build their own affordable energy efficient housing. The other kindergarten will be larger, for 250 kids. It will include three different housing models that will be attached to each other, again with the idea of demonstrating energy efficiency for the community. Eco Town is working with a local education NGO, Alungoo Education Development Association, and the Japanese architect Takahara Tezuka, who visited the location earlier this year. Again, Odgerel hopes that these kindergartens serve not only as model energy efficient buildings, but also an inspiration for building more schools throughout the ger areas.

As he tells me about one project after another, Odgerel laughs. “We have a lot going on.” The NGO has no paid staff, and he funds it mainly from his own pocket and from his business. Like the ger areas themselves, “it’s not sustainable.” The NGO desperately needs funding to continue its work. So much of it runs on volunteer efforts, people coming in from the outside to work on their projects (the “Gership” kindergarten is being designed by a woman from Brazil), and partnerships with other organizations. Fundraising efforts are hampered by the lack of staff and his own time. He has a lot of ideas that he’d like to develop community interest in, if only he had the funds.

The biggest problem Odgerel sees in the ger areas, though, is a lack of a sense of community. People don’t know each other. In the 31st Khoroo, where Eco Town is, there are 12,000 people. Three thousand families live there, and in the neighboring khoroo, there are another 2,000 families. But there are no public spaces for these families to meet each other in. Because of the haphazard way the ger areas are settled, all the land becomes private, so there is no space for public facilities like playgrounds, community centers, football fields, or even kindergartens or schools. This is one of the main problems Eco Town is addressing, building a sense of community through shared effort and problem-solving.

One of the solutions that Eco Town created is visible below the entrance to the Nomongoo compound: Our Dream Playground. This was a playground designed by the neighborhood’s children, based on drawings they made of what their dream playground would look like. The playground provides a focal point for the community; the children come there to play, and the parents can meet each other and talk. Odgerel hopes that such playgrounds will be built throughout the ger areas and in other cities and towns across Mongolia. Its construction was a community effort. With seed money from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and extra fundraising by the community (including a GoFundMe page), the playground came together with help from community volunteers. Now kids have a place to play outside, something that was not available before.

Another of Eco Town’s features, right next to the playground, is a community center, built in partnership with the NGO GerHub and the University of Hong Kong’s Rural Urban Lab. Designed as a house within a greenhouse, this community center, due to open in October, will serve multiple functions. It will be a space for public gathering and collective problem-solving, as well as a model for passive solar construction. Every project at Eco Town is designed not only for a particular function, but also as a source of inspiration for people to build their own. When they come to the “Ger Innovation Center” for a party, workshop, or other event, they will experience how passive solar can heat a living space and see how it was built. Odgerel sees community centers like this one as part of not only the solution to Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution problem, but also Mongolia’s burgeoning democratic traditions.

The nearly finished Ger Innovation Center

Indeed, mention of the community center leads to a discussion of the struggles in Mongolia’s nascent democracy. Mongolia only has thirty years of experience with democratic institutions, and many people still live under the assumptions they had under the former Communist government. “Democracy is new here, and people still wait for the government to provide everything.” Odgerel sees it as a matter of poverty and lack of education; this is why Eco Town focuses not only on sustainability and energy efficiency, but community development and education. As he says, though, “You can’t force things on people in the ger districts. They are low income families. They are concerned about their survival. They worry about what they will eat for dinner.”

Odgerel is also willing to walk the walk with these families. He told me that he just sold his apartment down the hill, and he’s building a house right next to his office. The structure still has a ways to go, but he’s designing it with a rainwater and runoff catchment and graywater irrigation channel to address another of the problems in the ger areas: lack of running water. Most people get their water from local water kiosks and have to haul it back to their homes; we’d passed the water kiosk on our way up the hill. I asked him what his timeframe was to finish the construction on his house; he laughed. “November. After that it will get too cold.”

Odgerel’s house, under construction

He’s not the only one who moved there. When the garage door company moved, four or five of its employees moved there as well. As we walked around, he pointed out their homes, and we joked that it’s a “company town.” This shows real commitment, though, to leave behind the relative comforts of the city center for the more rough-and-tumble ger area.

However, standing on the hillside, looking down at the city, I could understand why many people preferred the ger areas to the crowded, noisy city center. On this autumn day, at least, the air seemed clean, and the view was beautiful, even with one of the city’s coal-burning power plants. In the ger areas, you have a sense of space and of privacy that you wouldn’t get in one of the high-rise apartment blocks that the government would prefer people to move into (if they could only afford them). It’s the closest former nomads can get to their old life and the lives of their ancestors, out on the steppe.

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