A blog post focusing on a social entrepreneurship in Ulaanbaatar for World Cities’ Day
So. Now you know. Today is the World Cities’ Day. You probably know it more as (the probably more famous) Halloween. So if you need an introduction, United Nations designated October 31st as World Cities Day with a general theme of ‘Better City, Better Life.’
And to acknowledge the day, I have decided to focus on one man that is making his own impact on Ulaanbaatar – Mongolia’s capital city. One of the most polluted cities in the world. This is about Ulziitogtokh Sodnomsenge and Nogoon Nuur.
UB is situated in the Tuul River valley. It was a nomadic settlement – moving to its present location in 1778. From 1924 until the early 1990’s, Mongolia was run from the Kremlin and a course of socialist development was undertaken that was very close to the replica of the Soviet experience.
Ulaanbaatar’s downtown was designed by Soviet architects with the entire city being designed for pedestrians – built to hold 500,000 inhabitants. I’ll repeat that – 500,000 inhabitants.
So what’s the current population? Approximately 1.3 million. I’ll repeat that – approximately 1.3 million. Almost three times as many as the city was initially designed for. In the last census (2010) the population density of UB was 246 persons per square kilometre (compared to 1.4-1.7 in rural areas).
More than half of the capital’s residents live in the city’s ger districts. Life in the ger district is hard but for many citizens the ger remains central to their identity. It is not just new migrants from the countryside and impoverished residents who have homes in the district. Many successful city workers live here too.
It’s not easy though. The ger district is not connected to the city’s piped central heating system that runs to many other suburbs. In winter, when temperatures can drop to -40C, raw coal, rubber and even plastics are thrown onto the stove. These toxic emissions are one of the main reasons Ulaanbaatar is one of most polluted cities on Earth (during the winter months), according to the World Health Organisation – especially as the city is set in a hollow between four hills and struggles for space.
The new President of Mongolia has recently mentioned that:
‘Ulaanbaatar is like a family living in a ger that became too small to contain all of the members of the extended family.’
One person who is working on making his city a better place to live is Ulziitogtokh Sodnomsenge – or Ulzii, as he is known. There are few safe community spaces within the ger districts – especially community spaces where children can play. But, Nogoon Nuur (Green Lake) – the brain child of Ulzii is bucking this trend.
Ulzii is a philanthropist (his 2015 TedExUlaanbaatar talk focused on being rewarded someday for for what you have done or are doing). In 2009, Ulzii gained approval to develop the Nogoon Nuur (Green Lake) at Denjin Myanga. He cleaned up the lake and used his savings to turn the former dumpsite into an affordable community space.
In December 2012 it finally opened, offering affordable ice-skating (winter) and paddle boating (summer). In his words:
‘The kids in this area often have a very hard life. I want to give them somewhere to play.’
Over this time Ulzii has planted over 500 trees and focused on creating a healthy, green, public space for Mongolian people, especially children in the ger area. What is most noticeable about the whole area is the lack of rubbish. Surprising in Ulaanbaatar. The local children that visit are encouraged to respect the area and to help protect it.
I love this place immensely. That’s why we include it as part of our free city walking tour of UB – making a donation per person that visits. It shows our guests a different more local side to Ulaanbaatar.
As a traveller, you will more than likely bring your guidebook but why not ditch the guidebook for a while and discover a new side to this city that is now my home. The plug (of course!). If you would like to experience the community aspect of Ulaanbaatar with either myself or one of my Eternal Landscapes team, why not try one of our Mongolia one-day experiences?