Modernizing the City: Soviet Master Plans for Ulaanbaatar (1954-1990)

Formal city planning of Ulaanbaatar only started in 1954 during the time when the Soviet domination became more and more aggressive towards her satellites. The first comprehensive master plan of the city was produced by Giprogor Urban Planning Institute from Russia in 1954. Since then, the master plan had been revised for four times till 1990 when the Soviet Union was overthrown that the planning ceased. The original aim for Ulaanbaatar’s urban development was to become “communist authorities looked approvingly on urbanization as a natural outcome of industrialization; cities were seen as the highest form of advance and presented the showcase of social progress.”

The planning in 1954 plotted the basic layout and location of development with a time frame of 20 years, aiming at catering a population of 120,000. Basic infrastructure was constructed during that time to facilitate the city’s development. Focus was put to establish the central district and began construction of residential areas. In the mean time when the plan was carried out, Ulaanbaatar started to develop its industry to speed up industrialization. The first plan basically set out a framework for Ulaanbaatar to grow as a city like Moscow and Beijing.

While the first plan aimed for a 20-year long development, it underestimated the rapid growth of population of Ulaanbaatar, which soon surpassed the government’s expectation by more than 2 times. Hence, a revised plan was developed in the 1960s to tackle the increasing population by extending residential districts in the inner city, transformation of ger districts to apartment blocks and construction of satellite towns. Zoning of different programs and functions was one of the strategies for the planning. The second master plan established the current design of the city. Strategic planning according to national policies, topography and climate of the city was adopted since 1975 with the desire to refine the previous plans and hoped for Ulaanbaatar to develop correspondingly.

After 30 years of urban planning and development in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian government took back the authority to carry out planning in Ulaanbaatar in 1986. More high-rise residential buildings were constructed and factories and unimportant industries were relocated to other districts in Ulaanbaatar. During that period of time, the ruling of the Soviet Union became weaker and weaker; thus, her satellite countries gradually reclaimed control; thus, influence from the Soviet declined. Soviet-style planning became loose such that the government began to allow buildings to be built without following the master plan. Since then, Ulaanbaatar entered an unplanned period, as assistance from the Soviet was withdrawn. Hence, they were short of capital and lack of outline towards the development of Ulaanbaatar.

Nonetheless, the framework set out from 1954 created the basic pattern of the city of Ulaanbaatar. Not only did it represented the urban growth of the city, it also signified the land was a common property of people and that socialism had been the utmost important belief executed by the state. (Jamts, 1981) The city center was developed with basic infrastructure; residential district was expanded and transformed the way of living of Mongolians, from nomadic living in gers to living in apartments; industries were also built up such that Mongolians no longer relied solely on keeping livestock. The master plans designed and implemented by the Soviet greatly modernized Ulaanbaatar as a city.

The four master plans designed by Soviet planners during the communist period of Mongolia (Source from Ulaanbaatar City’s Mayor’s Office)
The four master plans designed by Soviet planners during the communist period of Mongolia (Source from Ulaanbaatar City’s Mayor’s Office)

1. Munkhnaran .S, Bazarkhand .TS, Chinbat .B, and Gantulga .G. “Green Belt Zoning for Ulaanbaatar City.” International Journal of Science and Research, 2013. Accessed December 3, 2016.
2. Diener, Alexander C., and Joshua Hagen, eds. From Socialist to Post-Socialist Cities: Cultural Politics of Architecture, Urban Planning, and Identity in Eurasia. Routledge.
3. Kamata, Takuya, James Reichert, Tumentsogt Tsevegmid, Yoonhee Kim, and Brett Sedgewick. Managing Urban Expansion in Mongolia. Washington: World Bank, 2010.
4. Byambadorj, Tseregmaa. “(Re)constructing Planning in Face of Uncertainty: Challenges for Urban Planning in Mongolia.” 2012. Accessed December 5, 2016. PLPR Association.

1 Comment on “Modernizing the City: Soviet Master Plans for Ulaanbaatar (1954-1990)

  1. I would agree that the soviet intervention would take a major role in shaping the city.To a certain degree, when I was in Ulaanbaatar, I found myself in a Eastern European city more than a city in Asia. The width of the roads and density is drastic different from many Asian city.

    However, I do notice that the city preserved far too little Mongolian culture due to the Soviet “intervention”. The city centre was once dominated by traditional type of palace/ temple construction , which was totally wiped out under soviet rule. I would call that a destruction of culture and identity of people. Despite all those efforts to “build buildings like a ger”, I would conclude that the soviets were brutal in their city design.

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