The adverse effects of rapid urbanization: a case study of Ger Districts in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Ulan Bator or Ulaanbaatar, the capital and the largest city of Mongolia | Photo Credit: Kaare Ward Jensen


This academic article aims to explain the adverse effects of rapid urbanization in the Ger Districts of Ulaanbaatar Mongolia, rooted in Mongolia’s unique experience with the collapse of socialism, nomadic migration patterns, environmental pressures, and international aid. Gers are traditional nomadic homes that symbolize the rural lifestyle which has recently declined due to harsh climate conditions and Mongolians’ search for better education and work opportunities in the city. Urban sprawl in the global south’s developing cities gives rise to common experiences related to sanitation related health risks, pollution, inadequate infrastructure, and socioeconomic inequality. Using ethnographic research to understand the issues faced by Ger dwellers, this article aims to understand these problems in the Mongolian historical context and recommends community-led initiatives to alleviate the ills caused by urbanization.


Cities across the world are being transformed by the undeniable forces of globalization and concentration of power in urban centres, resulting in a process known as rapid urbanization. In particular, developing countries facing rapid urbanization experience common dilemmas such as poor housing, lack of social services, environmental damage, and social inequality (Choi). This research paper aims to examine the unique case of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where the recent sprawl of Ger Districts on the outskirts of the city have drawn local and international attention to the adverse effects of rapid urbanization. When urbanization occurs in a city, the city experiences increases in density, population, services, diversity, and socio-cultural trends reflecting an increasingly “urban” way of life (Hiller).

Internal and external factors such as migration, foreign investment, and the collapse of the Soviet system contribute to Ulaanbaatar’s urbanization (Choi; Sinclair). In the context of Mongolian culture and history, different views of studying the city must be employed alongside ethnographic research to understand community needs and identify sustainable solutions and infrastructure developments (Norovsambuu; Sinclair). As Mongolia further integrates itself into the global economy, it seeks to better the lives of its citizens in accordance to global standards by cooperating with international institutions and community-led initiatives.

Causes of Urbanization in Ulaanbaatar

The urbanization of cities encourages the development of economic, political, and culturally innovative centres, yet presents a plethora of problems in the context of the developing world (Choi). Many cities in the developing world undergoing rapid urbanization become primary cities of their respective countries, where a large percentage of the country’s population, resources, and capital are concentrated in one urban area (Hiller). Ulaanbaatar is Mongolia’s capital city as well as a primary city, since it hosts nearly half of the country’s population and acts as the hub of political and economic activity (Choi). Similar to self-constructed shantytowns, Ger districts are a product of mass rural-urban migration of mostly nomadic people seeking better opportunities in and near the city (Hiller). A Ger refers to a portable tent-like structure historically used by the nomadic people of Mongolia, often surrounded by a wooden fence (Sinclair). The explosive growth of these districts since the 1990s are associated with processes such as globalization, centralization, and selective investment patterns (Choi; Hiller).

Traditionally, Mongols have lived spread apart on the vast steppes as nomads and herders leading solitary lifestyles with weak community ties (Sinclair). Mongolian society was not based on mass agricultural domestication until the Soviet Union introduced new agricultural technologies (Worden and Savada). This pathway to urbanization differs from the European urbanization model which was induced by permanent settlements and the “agricultural revolution” (Hiller). Therefore, Eurocentric theories of city development that focus on agriculture and colonialism cannot be applied to Ulaanbaatar. This research aims to address the context-specific internal factors such as rural-urban migration and the collapse of Socialism, as well as the external pressures of the global economy as catalysts of rapid urbanization in Ulaanbaatar (Choi and Davison).

International Investment, Aid, and the Collapse of Socialism

The political economy perspective asserts that urbanization is a result of decisions made by powerful stakeholders regarding issues such as international trade, investment, and aid (Hiller). In the context of Ulaanbaatar, urbanization is associated with economic developments driven by a recently prospering mining industry supported by core nations such as Canada and China (Geoghenan; Hiller). In this way, Mongolia becomes a hinterland for other countries by providing raw materials, thus further integrating into the global sphere. According to world system theory, core nations influence urbanization in peripheral nations such as Mongolia by inducing investment, pushing rural poor into urban areas for employment, and promoting an export-oriented culture (Hiller). Furthermore, according to McKenzie’s ecological processes, urbanization is a result of centralization of popular services and population concentration (Hiller). The introduction of capitalism after the collapse of socialism prompted new cultural and architectural influences which shaped the physical form of Ulaanbaatar (Choi). Modern condominiums and high-end clothing stores were built across from Genghis Khan Square, indicating the increasing role of corporations in shaping urban space (Geoghenan).

The new urban order as a result of globalization and external forces seems to be slightly paradoxical, as peripheral countries are both exploited and aided by core nations. International development efforts in Mongolia focused on the adverse effects of rapid urbanization have been in progress since the 1990s. Monetary aid and infrastructure projects have been deployed and funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP) (Lawrence). Within this new urban order, the sharp contrast between poorer Ger-dwellers and the inner city rich elite employed in sectors like investment and technology exemplifies a dual economy (Hiller; Geoghenan). Ulaanbaatar’s unique city form, molded by dynamic internal and external factors, is seen in the clusters of tents juxtaposed against modern skyscrapers and condominiums (Barria).

Nomadic Migration and Environment Pressures

Ulaanbaatar’s relatively better living standards and economic opportunities act as “pull factors” for the mass rural-urban migration of countryside nomads (Engel; Hiller). Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the sprawl of Ger districts has occurred rapidly as Mongolia makes its transition to the market economy (Choi). Approximately 30,000 to 40,000 people move to the capital every year, with many families arriving from the nomadic grasslands in search of better access to employment and education opportunities for their children (Barria). This rapid population growth gives rise to an intense housing shortage (Barria) exasperated by insufficient building materials and skilled construction workers (Engel). A higher demand for housing leads to unreasonably high rent prices which many families, especially those from the countryside, cannot afford, thus pushing them into peripheral Ger districts where land and housing are inexpensive (Engel) .

Furthermore, migration to cities can also be explained by the push/pull pressures of weather and natural disasters (Hiller). In the case of Mongolia, harsh seven-month long winters are difficult for countryside dwellers; the most notable winter of 2010 was known as the “Zud” (“white death”), where millions of herder livestock were killed, pushing families to the city, which had relatively milder living conditions (Engel). However, unlike the slums or shantytowns in other developing cities, ethnographic research indicates the existence of somewhat mixed incomes within Ulaanbaatar’s Ger districts (Enkbayar). This occurs due to the significant cultural attractiveness of Ger life, where higher income individuals from the inner city also choose to move into Gers in the summer because they enjoy the space and lifestyle (Geoghenan). The social constructionist model justifies the popularity of Ger residences, as Mongolian people place great symbolic meaning behind life in a Ger due to its cultural and historical value (Hiller; Geoghenan). A resident satisfaction survey found that 69 percent of Ger households enjoy living in a Ger but would want improved infrastructure nonetheless (Engel).

Adverse Consequences of Urbanization

Ger districts, similar to many other impoverished shantytowns of the developing world, face the detrimental effects of environmental pollution, underdeveloped infrastructure, health problems, and social issues as a result of rapid urbanization (Choi). More than half of the residents in cities of the developing world live in poverty, which is exemplified by Ulaanbaatar, where nearly 60 percent of the city’s population lives in the Ger districts (Choi; Barria). Understanding the problems posed by rapid urbanization with an ethnographic approach will help policymakers plan and implement projects specific to community needs.


Ger districts, especially in the harsh winter months, experience particular environmental problems caused by household dependency on coal burning; Ulaanbaatar has the second-worst pollution in the world (Barria, Engel). Due to Ulaanbaatar’s particular geographic topography surrounded by mountains, the pollution tends to sit over the city and poses a strong public health risk evidenced by increasing respiratory illnesses (Engel). Furthermore, families must dig latrines near their Gers due to a lack of sewage systems and inadequate waste treatment facilities; high traces of bacteria such as E. Coli give rise to numerous infectious disease cases (Engel). Therefore, rapid urbanization “without effective urban governance” leads to “high levels of risk from natural and human-induced environmental hazards” (Hardov).


Rapid urbanization also leads to shortages or inadequate infrastructure, especially in the cities of the developing world (Hardov). The rapid increase in Ger districts has led to a shortage in utilities such as heating, sewage, clean water access, public transportation, and roads (Engel). For example, the average water supply is located 3.5 kilometers away from the Ger households (UN Habitat). Furthermore, the lack of sustainable and affordable energy alternatives leads to the heavy consumption of fuel and coal, thus posing detrimental risks to the environment (Engel). Social services such as health services and education are often located far from Ger districts, thereby adversely affecting resident access (UN Habitat). The lack of infrastructural provisions also poses other health risks, such as fires caused by faulty electrical wiring and high crime rates due to insufficient street lighting (UN Habitat).


The adverse effects of rapid urbanization on the environment, health, and infrastructure give rise to inequality, high unemployment, and low education rates in Ger districts (UN Habitat). The rural-urban divide seen in many regions of the world prompts high income inequality (Hiller). 45 percent of Ger district residents are below the poverty line as opposed to 16 percent of residents in apartment areas (UN Habitat). Despite moving to Ulaanbaatar for better education, many families are unable to send their children to schools in the city (UN Habitat). Although crime rates in Ulaanbaatar are very low compared to those of other cities in the developing world, they are slightly higher in Ger districts (UN Habitat).

Social stratification in Ulaanbaatar can be explained by certain aspects of the Chicago School theory of urban sociology, which focuses on the physical form of the city and utilizes ecological studies to map out social issues (Hiller). The concentric model within Chicago School theory divides a city into a developed commercialized core, transition zone, and outward residential area (Hiller). This model suits the case of Ulaanbaatar; the core of the city consists of mostly built housing, the transition zone consists of both built housing and Gers, and the outer zone consists of mostly Gers (Choi). Significant socio-economic differences between the outer Ger districts and the inner-city apartment districts exist, as Ger districts on average tend to be younger, less educated, and more dependent on social services (Choi). However, despite these detrimental consequences of rapid urbanization, Ger district residents still have a relatively high level of resident satisfaction, and interviews indicate that residents are hopeful for change to be brought on by the government’s development projects (Geoghegan).

Recommendations and development attempts

Cooperation between international bodies, the Mongolian government, and community leaders is necessary to achieve and alleviate the adverse effects of rapid urbanization in Ulaanbaatar’s Ger districts. By utilizing an ethnographic approach such as surveys, interviews, and community mapping, there has been some improvement in the air quality and waste disposal of Ger districts (Engel). Many of the indicated issues in Ger districts are also targeted by long-term projects such as the Mongolian government’s 2030 Master Plan involving urban renewal and housing improvements (Davison).

The World Bank has contributed significantly to Ulaanbaatar by introducing a greater number of water pipes and energy efficient stoves in Ger districts (Lawrence). International donors such as the ADB, UNDP, and JICA exemplify the global effort to alleviate the pressures of urbanization in an increasingly globalized and developing country (Lawrence). Short-term improvements such as plastic lining of the latrines allows waste to be picked up by disposal trucks, thus providing an increased source of comfort and living standards for residents in Ger districts (Engel). The Mongolian government’s 2030 master plan is a $28 billion attempt to construct 10 regional towns, 3 satellite cities, railway, transit, and other infrastructural improvements (Davison). The ultimate goal is to implement “well defined land and housing policies” (Engel), to improve resident safety, address environmental concerns, and to move 70 percent of families into modern flats (Davison).

However, this approach to development is contested by locals who must be willing to sell their land and move away from their traditional lifestyles (Engel). Urban renewal focused on “slum clearance” arises due to the view that slums impede investment, yet is not always a successful approach (Hiller). Post-modernist urbanists stress incorporating, imitating and reusing traditional urban forms and structures (Hiller). Yet, critics view this Master Plan to be unfeasible due to its costliness, preferring small scale infrastructure redevelopments which are quick and cheap (Hung et al.; Davison). Installing new infrastructure in informal settlements like Ger districts well after their development is expensive and time-consuming (Hardov).

According to a survey of residents in Ger districts, their most favoured approach is to develop the countryside by building schools and increasing employment opportunities, thereby decreasing the need for rural populations to move to Ulaanbaatar (Engel). Furthermore, the participation and mobilization of community members in the development of their own neighborhoods is essential in finding community-specific resolutions (Enkbayar). UN Habitat’s approach focuses on empowering communities in dealing with settlement and sustainable urban development (Enkbayar). An example of community-led processes in Ulaanbaatar’s Ger districts is the use of community mapping for spatial analysis to identity gaps in public services (Norovsambuu et al.,). Mapping helps prioritize resources and investment with community members and is used to find optimal locations for developments such as water pumps (Norovsambuu et al.,). Smaller scale improvement projects such as planting trees, communal gardens, and housing upgrades positively influence physical and social conditions within Ger districts (Enkbayar).


Overarching global trends have influenced and are reflected by the Ger districts of Ulaanbaatar. Residents of these districts face issues common to the city-dwellers of the developing world, such as environmental destruction, infrastructure inadequacy, and social inequality (UN Habitat; Hardov). However, a context-specific approach is necessary to understand the unique developments of and rapid urbanization process in Ulaanbaatar, including the collapse of socialism, boom of the mining industry, and nomadic migrations. An increasingly globalized and developing city with the inability to provide basic services for a significant portion of its population turns to global institutions and ethnographic, community-led strategies to alleviate the adverse effects imposed by rapid urbanization. 


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Deniz Yilmaz is a third year student at the University of Toronto studying Political Science and Diaspora and Transnational Studies. She is interested in topics related to migration, refugees, and population issues.

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