Understanding Ulaanbaatar: How to do urban planning for cold climates
Colton is the senior planner for development and zoning services at the City of Edmonton. He represented the city for the twinning arrangement with Ulaanbaatar under the ADB Future Cities technical assistance. He brings over 13 years of experience in municipal planning, project management, and policy development.
Winter in Ulaanbaatar can be harsh. How can urban planning help the Mongolian capital and other wintry cities to become livable?
The ADB Future Cities technical assistance (TA), under the aim of introducing innovation to urban planning, brokered a twinning arrangement between Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) and Edmonton (Canada) to allow the two cities to learn more about sustainable solutions specific to cold climates.
To facilitate this, the City of Edmonton sent a technical staff to Ulaanbaatar for one month. The objective of this visit was to assist Ulaanbaatar in identifying opportunities to improve city planning and services based on Edmonton’s experiences in a winter setting, as well as to look in to implementing these lessons.
Reframing winter as an advantage
Ulaanbaatar, like Edmonton, is known for its extremely low temperatures. Both cities experience about 50 snowy days in a year, albeit Ulaanbaatar has a lower daily mean temperature or is about 10 degrees Celsius colder than Edmonton.
The winter season is long in the northern hemisphere cities, and this is usually regarded negatively. It is a time to close shop and stay inside. The productivity of people, businesses, and the city are affected. Not to mention, the chilly weather affects public health, among other consequences that negatively impact people’s way of life.
A winter city strategy is about capturing the subtle beauty of winter and transforming the city into a more inviting, vibrant, and prosperous place for locals, tourists, and industries alike.
Developing a winter city strategy is essential to counter the effects of a cold climate. Edmonton was chosen as a twinning partner given its similarity to Ulaanbaatar, particularly in terms of size, weather, and growth rate. In 2016 Edmonton had a population of 932,500 people, an increase from 812,200 in 2011 or an annual growth rate of 3%. In the same period, Ulaanbaatar’s population increased by an annual rate of 4%, reaching 1.396 million people. These characteristics provide an apt foundation from which Ulaanbaatar can learn from.
The twinning visit provided Ulaanbaatar with numerous insights, especially on the importance of a winter city strategy.
A winter city strategy is about capturing the subtle beauty of winter and transforming the city into a more inviting, vibrant, and prosperous place for locals, tourists, and industries alike. Such a strategy can help unify different city departments and agencies to incorporate specific considerations in designing and building infrastructure or delivering a particular service, thereby improving winter life in the city.
Adopting a winter strategy can also change how residents think about winter, expand tourism potential, and improve the city’s ability to attract and retain talent.
Part of a potential winter city strategy for Ulaanbaatar is incorporating winter-oriented design in city planning such as a well-built bus station that shelters passengers from the freezing cold. Photo: Colton Kirsop.
Emulating Edmonton’s winter strategy
According to Edmonton’s winter strategy, winter is as “an asset offering great social and economic value to the city.” Because of this streets and public gathering places are designed to capture sunlight and block the wind. Walkways are also easy to navigate and have playful lighting illuminating long winter nights. The strategy makes it easier and enjoyable for people to stay outside, even when it gets very cold. As a result, the city feels more alive and attractive, a place both locals and tourists want to be part of and experience.
This positive view and the purposefully built infrastructure were some of the takeaways from the twinning arrangement, which Ulaanbaatar could apply to its own context and strategy, should the city pursue developing one. A winter city strategy could help Ulaanbaatar confront its urban issues, such as poor air quality and need for improved city services.
During the winter season, air quality is particularly problematic in the city since many families fire up their stoves to keep warm, especially in the ger areas (districts with traditional tents). The city’s river valley geography doesn’t help the situation either – pollution is trapped within the city, enveloped by the surrounding mountains.
The development of a winter city strategy in Ulaanbaatar should address the health impacts of this poor air quality during the cold season. And this should be in addition to a deployment of higher heating and cooking technologies, as well as the redevelopment of ger areas into modern housing that includes central heating and access to clean water and sewage systems.
Preparing Ulaanbaatar’s winter strategy
Based on the twinning experience and the work of the Future Cities TA, a potential winter city strategy for Ulaanbaatar could include five possible pillars: (i) winter health, which would be the central pillar of the strategy, to focus on ger area improvements and use of clean energy-based heating technologies to improve air quality; (ii) winter life, to make being outside during winter easier and more enjoyable; (iii) winter design, to develop the city into a safe and accessible environment, whether in winter or the entire year; (iv) winter economy, to increase economic opportunities during the winter season; and (v) winter story, to communicate the rich winter cultural heritage of Ulaanbaatar and Mongolia.
To start this strategy, there should be a dialogue and process involving local stakeholders. Similar to Edmonton, this could follow these steps: (i) a municipal councilor gathers interested parties to determine who the appropriate strategy leaders are; (ii) identify champions; (iii) populate the leadership team; (iv) host an exploration forum; (v) plan a wintertime executive research trip; (vi) organize an architecture and design symposium; (vii) organize a design competition; (viii) and engage the public by hosting a public celebration of winter in the city, shaping the draft strategy, hosting a blizzard of ideas competition, and conducting a goals validation workshop.
To keep warm inside a get or traditional Mongolian tent during the winter season, many residents fire up their stoves, resulting in poor air quality in the city. Photo: ADB.
Zoning and other recommendations from Edmonton
Aside from the overall winter strategy guidelines, there are two more urban development areas that Ulaanbaatar could address: the zoning code and design guidelines. Zoning is an important and critical ingredient in the orderly and predictable development of livable cities. This tool has been used successfully in implementing orderly development in many North American and European cities. Furthermore, the strength of a zoning code is how when applied consistently, development outcomes are predictable and aligned with plans, encouraging foreign direct investments since it emphasizes how a city is systematic and consistent with its development, reducing risks for investors.
An example of a zoning standard is the required design elements that need to be embodied in a particular building type, such as overhead weather protections or lighting and signage plans. When considered carefully, zoning can bring harmony to the city by incrementally shaping individual buildings and civic spaces as they are designed and assembled.
However, Ulaanbaatar’s zoning code, though prepared in 2015, has not yet been formally approved. Because of this, implementing an urban planning design guideline could serve as an alternative to zoning.
Design guidelines are discretionary and more flexible, although it has the same risk of being ignored or not implemented. Still, it can lead to improved design outcomes, especially during winter.
Edmonton’s winter design guidelines have five principles, which builders in Ulaanbaatar could adapt: (i) incorporate design strategies to block wind; (ii) maximize exposure to sunshine through orientation and design; (iii) use color to enliven the winter landscape; (iv) create visual interest using light; and (v) design and provide infrastructure that supports desired winter life and improves comfort and access in cold weather.
Complying with design guidelines or additional regulations could increase builders’ expenses. However, the cost argument should be viewed against the longer-term value that better design brings to a city.
Updating the design and services of Ulaanbaatar or any other similar Asian city will contribute to higher financial returns, such as through increase in the number of businesses, tourism expenditures, and potentially higher property valuations. Overall, planning with the climate in mind can help turn winter into a thriving season that benefits the economy and improves quality of life.