27 December 2011

Mongolian Migrations

Rob Story and Giovana Beltrao

Migration can be a comfortable pattern or a tumultuous struggle. A culture built on migration has it woven into life. Movement is integral, anticipated and essential. But migrating a culture out of that pattern can be a different story. 

The people of Mongolia have migrated for centuries, routinely carrying their iconic gers with them as the seasons changed. But now, many have made the last migration - into the city, the migration of a culture, a pattern of life, an economy and an architecture. The move is not only theirs. It is a global phenomenon over which a nomadic family has little control over the pushes, pulls and consequences.
People are pushed by nature, pressures on resources, a collapsed economy; pulled by awareness of alternatives to the hardships of traditional life, by the draw of the city's bright lights. The young leave and the traditional cycle collapses. The search for a replacement life is inevitable, but the consequences can be traumatic and adjustments complex.
The draw of the city often dumps people into an urban poverty worse than the rural one they hoped to escape. A new settlement pattern must be adopted, a new economy must be entered, accessing basic needs must be re-learned, and an architecture must adapt. Developing governments are seldom ready to cope with the needs, and neither are many families. Sprawling slums are the result.
The traditional Mongolian family is nomadic and self-sufficient, moving with its herds through the hostile environment of the open steppes from summer grazing to winter protection. Long-standing communal traditions of land tenure recognize which families have grazing rights in a particular watershed and where their winter camping spots are. When the season ends, it takes only a few hours to fold up the family ger, pack it onto a couple of camels, or into a creaking old Russian truck, and move.
Architecture is the management of environments for people and their activities. By definition it must be holistic. Good architecture embodies the realities of a community's social structure, cultural beliefs, environment, economy and available technologies and materials. Indigenous architecture is always good architecture, it has no choice or it disappears. Best of all it is innately affordable and without formal debt. The well-know ger (yurt in Russian), is a perfect example. It evolved over generations in pragmatic response to that very set of drivers. When the drivers change, the architecture will follow. The situation in Mongolia exemplifies the challenges in doing so.
The ger is designed for the pattern of seasonal migration. We are familiar with the ger's classic kit-of-parts design, the hardware components, but less familiar with the software components, traditional family roles, social structure, household routines and the community relations that the ger encompasses. Migrating to an urban setting changes all of those. The software components are the first to feel the impact of urban migration, then the hardware must evolve. On the land the squat, decorated ger door opens from the expansive steppe to culturally ensured hospitality. A visitor need never knock. The mandatory salty butter tea is always on the stove. In the city, the door is behind a high fence, the gate is locked, the door is locked and the stove may be cold with family away in the cash economy.

Four contemporary events dramatically altered Mongolia's nomadic norms: the rise of Soviet control in the 1920s, its subsequent collapse in 1990, a twist of nature and globalising communication.
Under Moscow's direction, supply-driven rural industries were established throughout the countryside spurring a wave of migration off the land as families opted to abandon their nomadic lifestyle in favour of sedentary employment. Many brought their gers with them while others took advantage of Soviet-supplied workers housing in blocks of typically poor quality flats.
The collapse of the Soviet Union triggered another wave of migration. Overnight, rural industries became unsustainable and collapsed. Former nomads were stranded in small towns without employment, and without the ability or desire to go back to the land. The option was to migrate again, this time into the capital, Ulaanbaatar.
Then nature kicked in with two consecutive devastating winters that decimated the herds of the remaining nomads and launched yet another wave of rural-urban migration, this time straight from the land to the capital.
Compounding all of these, globalised communication is beaming exposure to lifestyle alternatives into even the most remote rural ger with its satellite dish and solar panel attached to a car battery. Aspirations rise, migration accelerates.

Ulaanbaatar is centuries old having evolved as a trading hub and a religious base anchored by Buddhist temples from which nomadic monks provided far ranging support. During the 70 years of Soviet domination, large portions of the simple traditional core of Ulaanbaatar were transformed into the semblance of a developing 20th century city with a combination of grand Soviet public buildings, shoddy apartment blocks, wide streets, centralised infrastructure and central government land control. The social and architectural contrasts between the two eras are stark.
With the end of Moscow's subsidies in 1990, government resources to manage urban growth disappeared. The result is that about 70% of Ulaanbaatar's built-up area is unplanned, sprawling beyond the Soviet-era core in poorly serviced, informal ger areas.
The nomadic perception of free rural land usage is dramatically different from that of an urban sense of ownership with a cost. Government guidance to orderly development of land, infrastructure and economic development should come first as the framework for growth, but the pace of rural-urban migration far outpaces government's capacity. Families can't wait and the building is always first. Real life replaces planning. Government then struggles to overlay some form of land tenure and insert infrastructure into the organic form of an informal settlement.
Incremental processes of development and densification over time are readily evident in Ulaanbaatar's "suburbs". New families arrive on the edge and plant their ger behind a new fence. Whatever plan, infrastructure and control exist have not made the transition to urban needs. Someone will claim land ownership, official or not, and payment for a "fence" will be needed, but without recourse to a Central Land Titles Office. It may be hundreds of metres to the nearest source of water with a wheelbarrow to pay market prices  up to 20 times that of the subsidized urban core. The sanitation system is a hole in the ground. Food comes from a shop and shops want money and that needs employment.
In older ger areas a single "fence" may have densified to contain two or three gers and several contemporary structures built as the family grows, aspirations are realised, or relatives arrive to share the space. Gers may have even been replaced all together. Corresponding improvements to infrastructure, however, are usually far behind. Bankable land tenure is not in place. Primitive pit latrines remain frozen through the harsh winters, then melt in spring and flow into the dirt passages serving as streets. Coal, dung and wood smoke from thousands of rural stoves choke the urban winter air. The struggle to enter the cash economy can rapidly alter the familiar family structure with the men migrating for work, women leaving the house and kids on their own.
It is true that the perceived social and economic opportunities of the city exist, but for far too many they remain out of reach. Migrations will continue. Cities must embrace the dynamic processes involved and target the key points of intervention if the goals of urbanised social, economic and environmental health are to be met. With the framework in place, a new vernacular architecture will evolve.

Rob Story: a Calgary-based architect, urban planner, traveller and photographer working with human settlement issues throughout the developing world for the past 25 years. President of HABICO Planning + Architecture.  Giovana Beltrao: a Brazilian-born architect and urban planner who started working in the favelas of Brazil 18 years ago and continues to work on human settlement projects throughout the developing world with Rob and HABICO.

Story, Rob and Giovana Beltrao.    'Mongolia Migrates'  On Site review, no. 24 Fall 2010
©Rob Story, Giovana Beltrao and On Site review

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