By Julian Dierkes
Caveats: I am no city planner, nor a scholar of urban development. I also don’t have a strong sense of what’s happening in Ulaanbaatar outside the very small downtown area within, say, 4km of Sukhbaatar Square. Yet, I travel to Ulaanbaatar regularly and am thus confronted with visible changes in the cityscape that I have written about previously (Oct 2013 | September 2013 | June 2013)
I’m back in Ulaanbaatar after about six months’ absence. The drive in from the airport makes less of an impression than it has on some previous visits, in part because the (re)construction of the highway to the airport seems to have been largely completed. It is now two lanes in both directions, at least until just before it crosses the Tuul River. There are street lanterns, bus stops and pedestrian crosswalks. The large apartment blocks that had appeared last year (I think) have not multiplied further, the Hunnu Mall looked like it had not been completed. I couldn’t quite tell in the dark how much further along the new urban district (Viva City, I think) had progressed.
On one of my last visits it struck me to what extent we can watch Ulaanbaatar develop as an urban metropolis, virtually right in front of us. When I walked around yesterday, it struck me that we are also observing a stark version of urban development without planning, at least without planning that corresponds to my layman’s aesthetic of urban development. Having grown up in Berlin where building height is tightly regulated, the variety of heights of buildings that are popping up in Ulaanbaatar is bewildering and a bit oppressive. It is also beginning to cover some of the gems of urbanity that marked Ulaanbaatar in the past.
I don’t want to romanticize Ulaanbaatar’s past too much, but one of the aspects that marked the city when I first started coming regularly about 10 years ago was its openness. Unfortunately, I don’t really recollect much of the cityscape from my first visit/pass through on the train in 1991, but in the mid 2000s the four-story Ulaanbaatar Hotel seemed like a substantial building that had significant open space in front of it.
Now… the Ulaanbaatar Hotel is dwarfed even by the next-door headquarters of the MPP (at least in massive appearance if not in height) which in turn is towered over by Central Tower. At least the stretch of green in front of the Hotel now extends to the front of Central Tower along Peace Avenue as well.
Just South of the city centre, many new buildings are going up. Hotels and commercial buildings closer to the centre, apartment complexes a bit further away. Many of these reach beyond 10 stories. Few of them are architecturally distinguished (to this layman’s eyes), but most of them are inoffensive. Some of this densification is made possible by a re-rourting of traffic that has established several important East-West axes other than Peace Avenue. Yet, my limited imagination does not allow me to see how this cluttered, seemingly unplanned densification will lead to anything particularly attractive in the long run. Open spaces (even if they were dirt lots in the past) are disappearing, but there is no coherent facade to blocks of buildings bordering on city streets.
I find it especially noticeable how many residential buildings seem to be under construction now when the last couple of years looked to be mostly about commercial buildings. If the construction site down the street, across from the Japanese embassy is really going to be a Shangri-la hotel, I do have to wonder what hordes of foreign visitors are clamouring for luxury hotels.
These developments make a safeguarding of the Tuul and Selbe riverfronts, and of existing open spaces that much more important.