Incremental Urbanism: Ulaanbaatar`s Ger Settlements

Department: Architecture
Research Centre: Rural Urban Lab
Active Dates: September 2015 - September 2017

Principal Investigator: Joshua BOLCHOVER
Funding body: GRF


Mongolia is facing a critical moment in its urban evolution. The economic reforms following Soviet withdrawal in 1990 coupled with the discovery of vast reserves of coal, gold, andcopper led to massive rural migration to the capital city: Ulaanbataar.
Predicted GDP growth rates of 17% in 2011 and the promise of development projects lead nomadic herdsman to sell their livestock and move to the city in search of a better life.

The population of the city doubled since 1989 and city’s territory expanded from 130km2 to 4700 km2. The extremely cold winter (zud) in 2010 that killed many livestock sealed thefate of many, leaving them little choice other than to move to the city. The nomads settle on any available land, occupying residual inner areas, slopes and the periphery of the city. When migrants arrive they erect a traditional felt tent – a ger – andsurround the plot with a wooden fence. The extent and rapidity of their growth has meant that the provision of the most basic services of urban life has not been viable: water isfetched from kiosks; pit latrines are dug on site; and garbage goes uncollected. Coal smog hovers throughout the city during the winter as ger residents burn fuel to stay warm. As this population has no prior experience living amongst others – there is no word for “community” in Mongolian – or in situ, in one home on a single plot of land, other problems ensue such as solid waste disposal and a consideration of shared public space. Compounding these issues is widespread unemployment, alcoholism and health problems.

Unlike other informal settlements in developing countries, these districts are not illegal as each new migrant, as a Mongolian national, has the right to land ownership. However, they are still stigmatized as problem areas – effectively slums – that are seen as a hindrance to Ulaanbaatar’s evolution into a “modern” capital.


This project seeks to understand the spatial characteristics of this unique rural-urban fringe as a unique example of informal settlements. Through the research, the aim is to develop innovative architectural prototypes that can contribute to the integration of the Ger districts into a viable urban construct. Through this methodology the aim is to create an alternative urban model of development for “slum” areas, other than wholesale demolition.


Two strategies have emerged: the insertion of prototypes that address civic needs such as waste collection; and the modification of the ger itself. Through devising designs that can allow residents to improve the basic unit of living this can improve their everyday lives and also contribute to the transformation of the urban fabric.


  • Joshua Bolchover (2016) Settling the Nomads, Architectural Design: Designing the Rural, June, p20-27.
  • Joshua Bolchover and John Lin, (Rural Urban Framework) Settling the Nomads, Reporting from the Front, Venice Biennale 2016.

Anticipated Impact

The work will be tested as built prototypes and their performance will be recorded. If successful the impact will be to fundamentally alter the urban condition in these informal settlements.

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