Notes from the Field

Participatory Urban Planning Takes Hold in Mongolia

May 7, 2014

Mongolia’s economic boom, coupled with harsh winters that have killed off cattle and traditional livelihoods, have made the country’s rural, pastoralist lifestyle less attractive and economically viable. As rural residents flood to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, in search of work, city residents now account for one-half of Mongolia’s total population, up from one-quarter only 25 years ago.

As rural residents flood to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, in search of work, city residents now account for one-half of Mongolia’s total population, with 60 percent of those city residents living in the ger districts. Photo/Kristin Kelly Colombano

As rural residents flood to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, in search of work, city residents now account for one-half of Mongolia’s total population, with 60 percent of those city residents living in the ger districts. Photo/Kristin Kelly Colombano

But 60 percent of those city residents live in the ger districts that surround the capital, without access to basic services such as electricity and water. Given this rapid growth, the government has not been able to develop adequate planning for the soaring ger developments. However, potential solutions have come in from unlikely places – most recently from Solo, Indonesia.

In March 2013, a Mongolian delegation made up of Ulaanbaatar City Municipality staff, including the head of the governor’s office and 10 newly established ger area unit heads, visited Solo in Central Java to learn from an innovative community mapping initiative, pioneered in 2009 by local NGO Yayasan Kota Kita (YKK). For the first time, the mapping project enables citizens to interact in participatory planning, budgeting, and urban development decisions in this city of over 500,000.

Although the two cities appear to be very different, Solo and Ulaanbaatar share similarities, including rapid population growth. In both places, governance has traditionally been top-down, and collecting accurate social and welfare data has historically not been a priority. Both cities also share similarities in their local administrative structure – Indonesia has a RT (neighborhood association) system that is based on 30-50 households that act as community leaders at the lowest level in the administrative system. Ulaanbaatar has khoroos, under which there are community leaders similar to RT leaders who are involved in decision-making at the local level. Both local governments have recognized the need to gather data at the local level, and traditional methods of data collection have proven unreliable and lacking in the detail and nuance needed to accurately reflect local needs. These local administrative structures prove ideal for community-based problem solving through the generation of crowd-sourced information.

An advantage of this bottom-up community mapping approach is that it is able to generate a high degree of accuracy about the location of specific infrastructure facilities, which can be identified on city maps. Previously, information was not available at the lowest levels, so nuances around pockets of poverty and lack of services could not be identified.

Important to both cities is the need to identify community solutions that stem from a lack of government capacity, and the need for citizens and community organizations to engage in discussions to find effective mechanisms for infrastructure maintenance. The information generated for the maps helps bring people together to discuss how best to share their resources.

This was the basis of the community mapping database project in Solo. The maps and “mini atlases” available on the website, Solo Kota Kita, profile information about every neighborhood in Solo. The data collected are linked to the local budget process (musrembang), which informs a series of maps that show services such as the provision of schools and health clinics graphically. These tools are used to understand the urban issues facing residents related to education, poverty, and health, and have helped the local government prioritize spending and development priorities as patterns emerge in the incidence and correlation of deprivation and social problems.

Solo’s mapping tool as a way of dealing with urban planning problems has been particularly useful for Ulaanbaatar’s ger districts. Following the study tour in 2013, the City Municipality requested a similar mapping project for the ger districts. After an intensive data collection and mapping process in 87 neighborhoods, the Manaikhoroo Community Mapping website launched in January 2014, with information on 11 indicators concerning accessibility and availability of public services, including street lighting, illegal garbage dumping, and crime hotspots, via downloadable maps.

Mr. Gerelchuluun, head of the city’s Governor’s Office, said that this more transparent approach has allowed the city to more effectively monitor and evaluate the performance of city officials in providing services and making improvements. The city is now introducing a plan by which the best performing local district head will receive a bonus equivalent to one year of their salary.

By focusing on local service provision and facilities, elected officials are held accountable in a way that elections do not provide for, so the system also supports more informed political decision-making. In Ulaanbaatar, the mapping project has enabled the mayor to engage citizens in community meetings in all 87 ger areas, with over 300,000 people participating in city budget discussions.

In February 2014, a second delegation from Mongolia, this time including representatives of the Ulaanbaatar’s District Governments and the City Municipality, visited Solo to learn more about participatory budgeting and planning policies, how urban redevelopment and planning processes can spur economic development, and how community savings schemes such as revolving funds can support community-level development and employment. If applied in Ulaanbaatar, these could make an important contribution to the lives of some of its most vulnerable residents living in the ger districts.

Jeremy Gross previously served as The Asia Foundation’s election program manager in Indonesia, and currently works as occasional consultant for the Foundation. He can be reached at jeremy@practicallyexperienced.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

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