Community Beyond the [Fence] - Community Building through Landscape Intervention Strategies in Ger Districts, Ulaanbaatar

Honor Award

Residential Design

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Yantong Guo, International ASLA
Faculty Advisor: Georges Farhat
University of Toronto

"This proposed project for the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, thoughtfully and sensitively addresses the need for long-term solutions for burgeoning informal urban settlements of previously nomadic people. Characterized by the use of gers, the region’s traditional nomadic tent dwellings, and high fences that impede community interaction, these haphazard settlements both lack essential municipal services and foster isolation. This three-phase proposal would begin by transforming existing water kiosks into informal gathering places. Then, summer and winter greenhouses are located between living units to grow food, provide heat, and break down fences separating neighbors. And, finally, more elaborate structures were proposed to foster community interaction among adults and children while also treating waste and water."

- 2019 Awards Jury

Project Credits

  • Many thanks to my advisor Prof. Georges Farhat for his guidance and support, Thanks for their great help, Ger Community Mapping Center, GerHub, Froit VanderHarst and Xiaojun Liu.

Project Statement

In Mongolia a new type of urbanized landscape called ger district has emerged that combines the nomadic yurt settlement pattern with informal urban settlement at the periphery of Ulaanbaatar. This neighborhood lack basic utilities and services such as heating and sewage. With the increasingly harsh winters, this area's social and environmental system will face even more pressures.

The project's topic is community beyond the fence. Instead of removing and redeveloping the area as a new dense urban district, the proposal draws on the existing patterns to create a bottom-up approach to the environment and social challenges in the ger districts. It is trying to build an alternative community structure through landscape intervention strategies. The community would be based on a new self-supported resource circulation which could release the environmental problems in the district such as air, soil and groundwater pollution. In the proposal, landscape approaches could act as an initial point to change people`s way of thinking and people can improve the living environment by themselves.

Project Narrative


In Mongolia a new type of urbanized landscape called ger district has emerged that combines the nomadic yurt settlement pattern with informal urban settlement at the periphery of Ulaanbaatar. In the last 20 years, the Ulaanbaatar's population has grown over 70% from around 600,000 in 1989. Since most of them could not afford the price for apartments in city center, people settle on any available land near the city. They are occupying residual inner areas, slopes and the periphery of the city with fences and gers, which is a traditional dwelling in Mongolia. These areas have become ger districts.

Causes of Migration

This migration is resulted from two reasons.
The first one is the transformation of the social structure. Historically, herders lived in groups organised under large institutions such as Buddhist monastery. In 1990, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country changed towards a market economy. This organization for nomadic families, which was supported by the state during communist time, disappeared. The individual family struggled to make their life in the extreme winter condition on the steppe.

The second reason is climate change. Dzud is the Mongolian term for a harsh winter, following a dry hot summer. It stops the grass from growing which make it difficult for animal to survive. Last winter, 700,000 animals were killed by the snow and freezing cold. Losing this major source of income meant that nomads had to leave the steppes and look for work in the capital city.

Lifestyle Transformation

The lifestyle in ger district combines urban and nomadic lifestyle. Houses can connect to electricity system similar to the city center. But The sewage and heating systems are still missing. Instead, people have to keep their traditional way for toilet and heating which has a harmful effect in high density areas. Pit latrines they use have led to soil and groundwater pollution and the coal burning has caused serious air pollution. These environmental problems have become the main challenges in people's lives. On the other hand, the way that people collect water from the water kiosk and greenhouse construction is unique in this area. Water kiosks are usually in walking distance. Livestock is not prohibited in city so that a few families begin to make greenhouse in their courtyard for vegetable farming which is uncommon in their history. These bottom-up strategies can be an opportunity for improvement.

Considering the environment and culture the challenges new migrant and local people would meet in the ger district, what can landscape designer do to help to build up a new resource circulation in order to solve social problems and have a better further development structure?

New Community Structure

Since the existing administration structure fails to provide proper planning and infrastructure, I propose an alternative community structure for more affordable and feasible waste and resource management. In this new structure, a middle level based on a sharing space between neighbors is proposed. A group of families can cooperatively build the necessary infrastructure in the sharing area that is unaffordable for a single family.

This infrastructure develops a resource circulation system in which recycled human waste is used as fertilizer in greenhouses that transfers heat to the adjoining house and reduces coal consuming and groundwater pollution.

Building more community trust is the main challenge for this project and also an opportunity to develop a proposal. Many Mongolian are suspicious and less likely to cooperate. The 2m high fence and lack of public spaces in the ger districts reflects this distrust. My project would be designed in three phases to realize the new community structure based on neighborhood relationship and build up new resource circulation.

Three Phases

Three phases would build the new resource circulation gradually not only minimizing air, soil and groundwater pollution, but also promoting a better social relationship in the district.

Phase1: Communication Gateway

The first stage is to increase opportunity of communication between neighbours. In ger district, residents have to go to a water kiosk everyday to collect water. So the Water kiosk is also a chance to constantly meet neighbours. The kiosk unit is attached to the existing water kiosk building. It would be sealed in the winter and open in the summer. So people can have better condition for seating and communication when waiting for water even in the winter. A test field is put at the south side as an inspiration for knowledge exchange for farming. The community meeting unit can be built near the kiosk when there is enough space. It is designed for formal or informal meetings, discussion and information exchange inside the community. The unit can serve as a public library. The resting unit on the street provide shelter when people need a break. This can be an inspiration and starting point for the second and third stage.

Phase2: Break the Fence

The second stage is the vegetable farming program that can make the fence more permeable. The Greenhouse is one of the key elements for new circulation. The main greenhouse unit is built facing south near the entrance of the courtyard. It can replace part of the fence for better sunshine and improve the street environment at the same time. The extension unit can be attach to extend the planting space as the family needs. The winter greenhouse unit is built next to the house. In winter, the greenhouse can absorb heat in the morning and warm air could be circulate into the house by a fan. In the evening, heating from the home would go through the pipe underground to help warm up the soil for preventing freezing overnight. The requirement for fertilizer and water can encourage the residents to promote the third stage.

Phase3: Spontaneous Community

The third stage would take place spontaneously under a closer relationship with neighbour. Each family would use a corner of their courtyard for sharing with their neighbor. Infrastructure for waste management and water filtration is built by collaboration in the sharing space, which can help also provide necessary water and fertilizer in the second stage. Each structure would include a private part and a sharing part. The private side would be used as a toilet and washing area, in order to collect grey water and human waste into the sharing space. Solid and liquid waste are collected separately. Two pits are used alternately so that solid waste can be mixed and dried up in the tank. The dried waste can be collected to fertilize the farmland. Liquid is collected into the septic tank for sedimentation and then to the botanical cell for filtration. Grey water would be directed into the botanical cell as well. In the Botanical cell, water would flow through reception, shallow and typical cells for purification. At the end, water can be collected by a hand pump for watering the greenhouses. In addition, neighbors can have group activities in the sharing space or even build up a shared heating system with more efficient coal burning.

Discussion and Further Development

What can landscape architect do for the site is the main challenge for my project. Instead of removing and redeveloping the area as a new dense urban district, my proposal draws on the existing patterns to create a bottom-up approach to the environment and social challenges in the ger districts. For further development, the proposal need to have closer communication with local families and try to meet the different situation and requirements from them. I hope landscape could act as an initial point to change people`s way of thinking and people can improve the living environment by themselves.


Plant List

Phase One - test field:

  • Carrot
  • Potato
  • Strawberry
  • Tomato

Phase Two - Summer Greenhouse:

  • Cabbage
  • Onion
  • Pepper
  • Tomato
  • Red Bilberry
  • Sea Buckthorn Saplings
  • Medicago sativa

Phase Two - Winter Greenhouse:

  • Brussels Sprout
  • Cucumber
  • Kale
  • Gooseberry
  • Lettuce
  • Turnip
  • Muskmelon
  • Strawberry

Phase Three - Botanical Cell:

  • Siberian Peashrub
  • Threeleaf Arrowhead
  • Common Reed
  • Curry Plant
  • Bulrush
  • Scirpus atrovirens
  • Soft Rush
  • Silybum