Ulaanbaatar (UB), the capital of Mongolia, is faced with unprecedented challenges. Natural resources, education and health to name a few are urgent issues that international NGO have been working on for years on different fields. Among them Ger Community Mapping Center (GCMC), a young local NGO, is gaining momentum through an innovative approach based on mapping and community participation.
Founded in 2008, GCMC is a non-governmental, not for profit organization dedicated to community mapping as a planning and awareness tool to advocate for sustainable decent living conditions. Their primary area of intervention are the ger districts. A ger is a yurt, the traditional felt housing. The team is made up of volunteers who share a deep interest in fair, sustainable development through participatory and eco-friendly solutions to address local urban problems.
They specialize in mapping using GIS (geographic information system) tools to conduct projects related to the following themes: community-driven decision-making, urban development, human ecology and sustainability.
GCMC’s endeavor articulates around two main activities: mapping and ger area tours, with the same ambition to foster sustainable urban development through empowerment of local communities.
Home to 1.4 million people, Ulaanbaatar tends to grow in an undiscerning manner, putting a strain on natural resources and causing social inequity. The ger area, where 64% of the city’s population live, is sprawling and authorities cannot keep up with the massive newcomers’ inflow. The ger areas however are the original form of Ulaanbaatar and dwellers own their plots of land. Land is so precious to Mongolians that some people choose to live in the ger areas and run a business from there (e.g. garage, workshop) rather than buying an unproductive apartment. Though being sometimes compared to a slum, the ger settlements have these unique traits that set them apart. Still unemployment rate is high and public services are lacking. Not to mention air, water and soil degradation that everyone is well aware of. It is admittedly an erratic and challenging urban structure, yet close to what many Mongolians aspire to.
The center on the other hand is the modern part of the city, with its towering buildings and never-ending public works on the streets. Roads are packed with cars and the construction boom that started less than a decade ago is taking over supposedly protected areas, like the Bogd Khan Mountain.
Mapping helps addressing these issues. It brings about new perspectives and coherence at the head of the city as well as among grassroots. This is why GCMC promotes long term urban planning, participatory decision-making, sustainable urban development, environmental protection, social and community mapping and community development altogether.
Mapping offers multiple benefits: it is visual and accurate, easy to understand, it contextualizes particular problems in spatial and temporal dimensions. By giving an insight into the perspective of local communities, it is a powerful advocacy tool.
With this in mind, GCMC collects GIS data and cooperates closely with stakeholders to gather information. For instance, they had a long running series of meetings with khoroos (UB subdistricts) representatives to find out the number of households growing plants on their lands. It is a useful preliminary work to erosion mitigation plans or urban agriculture projects that may be conducted in the future.
Through meeting and workshops with community members, they seek to engage the latter in discussing the issues they face and identify solutions. This is what they call community engagement. Once information and data are processed, resulting maps draw trends and patterns out of given issues in a straightforward visual format. This provides a tool to plan local infrastructure and non-infrastructure improvements by involving the local community.
Even though people at GCMC collaborate as closely as possible with the communities, some pieces of information like the unemployment rate remain obscure because a part of the labor force is unregulated and official figures do not distinguish between the city center and the ger areas.
GCMC is now willing to partner with schools in the ger areas. They see it as a way to educate young generations on issues in the poor neighborhoods and on broader fundamental challenges namely environment and health.
GCMC works on any topic where maps can make a difference, which means a lot. For example, they recently completed a “school safety zones” project to figure out why the number of traffic accidents involving children is increasing and suggest solutions to this major public safety issue.
Waste management is getting critical in Ulaanbaatar. Households waste are the most visible part as It accumulates virtually everywhere on land and water streams. Now, when one looks at construction waste, that is everything being thrown away by the construction sector, it appears as an even greater concern. The amounts generated are tremendous, some of them are hazardous and they are hardly managed, if at all. GCMC conducted a preliminary work for Czech NGO Caritas. They mapped the construction sites, legal and illegal landfills (scattered all across the ger areas), routes of trucks transporting waste and other data. This provided Caritas with a solid base to carry out their research on how to reduce, reuse and recycle wasted construction materials, and ask for more transparency and accountability from all stakeholders.
Bicycle community mapping is one of their current projects. Its innovative approach relies on end user input to generate data: selected bicycle users are given a GPS that they carry along during their trips. The GPS will collect ordinary data like speed, route, time of day. When the information is analyzed, it will help for instance, to suggest car-free roads, determine the levels of noise and pollution cyclists are exposed to, propose technical solutions like sloped curbs, better rain water drainage and bike parking spots. Traffic safety and car/bike comparison in terms of time, CO2 and financial costs are also possible outcomes. But the Ger Community Mapping Center wants to take mapping a step further, beyond the mere geographical aspect. They are discussing the option to have bike riders equipped with audio recorders to capture their impressions and match them with GPS data as they are traveling through the city. GCMC wants to generate an emotional bike mapping of Ulaanbaatar and transcript what people feel into colors on a map.
GER AREA TOURS
GCMC intends to show the unsung positive side of the ever-evolving ger areas through dynamic individuals. They reveal the potential for community-driven, sustainable development and prove the ger areas are full of possibilities. This is why GCMC organizes tours. They take small groups to visit these people – most of them are craftsmen and entrepreneurs - and other places.
The tour has gained interest from international NGOs and institutions. So far, GIZ (Germany), People in Need (Czech Rep.), Caritas (Czech Rep.), European Commission officials, JICA (Japan), World Bank, Asia Development Bank, UN, as well as real estate agencies and others attended the tour. Their main motivation is to understand how the ger areas work. GCMC is adamant that the tours are not tourism. They see the tours as yet another attempt to improve living conditions and perspectives in the community. It is also an opportunity for the team to meet officials from international organizations, spread the word on their work and find potential partnerships. Proceeds allow them to carry on their mapping projects and organize events with the community, what they call “give back community”, to highlight people and initiatives.
GCMC is now brainstorming the construction of their “headquarters” in the ger district. Besides the office, they plan to have a community center where dwellers can talk and access mapping resources, a shared working space for trainings and workshops, a corner shop/cafe, a medical consulting room, rental conference spaces and a greenhouse to grow organic food. The construction will comply with passive housing standards and the surrounding land that offers nothing but short grass will be planted with dozens of indigenous trees, shrubs and plants. Insects and birds will be provided with shelters. This aims at showing people the benefit of letting nature in.