Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms buzz regularly (some may say permanently) with the gripes, complaints, disenchantments and other quirks of life and politics in Mongolia. Some justified and considered, some significantly less so. This is by no means unique to Mongolia and to a casual observer seems to be on the rise globally.
Having lived in Mongolia for the past 13 years it has become an ever-present part of my life, a comforting topic of discussion, a mean to forge social bonds with peers. Expats, Repats and Mongolians alike often take a certain level of glee and no small pleasure in pointing out the failings, errors and inadequacies of a growing economy.
A defining feature of the 21st century is the mass rural to urban migration movements that have taken place first in the Global North during the industrial revolution of the late 1700’s and more recently in the Global South as those countries industrialise at a rapid pace (Seto, Fragkias & Gu, 2011). Such migration mostly takes place in-country (Haug, 2008) and is primarily motivated through climate or economic incentives (Barrios et al.. 2006) but often incorporates a desire to access public services upgrade lifestyles or access education. By the middle of this century we will be a predominantly urban civilisation (UN, 2015). Up to a third of the world’s population is involved in this vast human migration (Saunders, 2010) which impacts nearly everyone in some tangible way. There are approximately 498 cities globally that have over a million inhabitant, over 70% of which are located within the Global South (UN, 2016; 4). Approximately half of all urban growth in the Global South is a direct result of rural to urban migration (Smart & Smart, 2003) leading to fears that the pace of population growth outpaces the capacity of the city to sustainably absorb those migrants into the urban economy (UN, 2015; Røpke, 2006). Such a shock to the city will inveitably lead to considerable transformation of the urban space (Smart & Smart, 2003).
Community participation has become the buzzword of development projects over the past two decades. It is today at the core of almost every sustainability-related project as there is a gradual shift from top- down authoritative managerial planning towards more inclusive participatory development. The concept has become overused (Swapan, 2014: 191) and heavily politicised (Head, 2007: 447) thus often reducing its efficiency to a box ticking exercise, or, occasionally to further the interests of a minority (Botes and van Rensburg, 2000: 41). Beyond the vagueness of the term “community” itself, which suggests a sense of harmony, shared identity and cohesion which it often lacks (Head, 2007: 441), there is also a lack of common understanding of how “successful” participation is measured or defined (Holzer and Kloby, 2005: 517; Khwaja, 2004: 428). There is debate surrounding the forms that such participation could take and its impact on spatial elements of sustainable development (Marfo, 2008).
The need for low carbon cities can be reduced to a simplified equation; cities produce too much Green House Gases (GHG) thus contributing to climate change and negatively impacting their sustainability. The major source of urban GHG’s are fossil fuels used for energy generation in the sectors of transport, electricity and district heating (Whiteman et al 2011:252). It is therefore essential to not only transition to more sustainable, less carbon intensive sources of energy but also to reduce overall energy consumption. Poor town planning initiatives that do not encourage transit oriented development, mix use, densification, green infrastructure as well as an ill adapted regulatory environment surrounding waste disposal, construction materials and property development further contribute to urban GHG emissions (CCC, 2012:8).
While there is little agreement as to the particular benchmarks and standards that make up urban sustainability (Khan, 2006), the traditional pillars of sustainability are considered to be “Social Development”, “Economic Growth” and “Environmental Protection” as initially set out by the Brundtland Commission (WCED, 1987) and later defined by the 2005 World Summit on Social Development (Kates et al. 2005). Those pillars are often supplemented by a fourth, considered to be “Cultural Vitality” (Hawkes 2001), a part of the “circles of sustainability” of UN Agenda 21 (Spangenberg, 2002). Cultural Vitality is a focus away from the social elements of sustainability and towards the intangible human and cultural dimension, their heritage and the differences that exist between various urban areas to be preserved and enhanced (Duxbury and Jeannotte 2012). This involves an adaptation of sustainability according to cultural norms and strategies employed (Nadarajah and Yamamoto 2007). Academics (Banister, 2008; Maoh and Kanaroglou, 2009; Geels, 2012; Tran et al., 2014) argue to the undervalued importance of technology in sustainability and its impact in improving social equity, economic efficiencies, transparency and governance within urban systems.
While financial viability is central to the principles of long-term urban sustainability, should it become the defining factor of policy making, beyond its social equity remit? Keeping both elements into balance is essential towards improving the long-term viability of those sustainable efforts. To better understand those key terms, they must first be defined and understood. For the purposes of this essay, the point of view of public sector investments only is taken ignoring the financial viability aspects of the private sector involvement within the built environment, even if they increasingly take on traditional responsibilities of the public sphere, since profit is almost always the overriding and ultimate goal.
This essay explores the relationship between the needs for improved social inclusiveness within our urban environment and the impact that this may have on current place-making efforts. The ‘Right to the City’ movement, initially launched by Henry Lefebvre in 1967 and taken up by Harvey in 2003, demanded greater distribution and access to urban resources through revolutionary means. This has mutated into a greater discourse about growing inequalities in cities, the privatisation of common space and access to public spaces. Place-Making, despite its efforts in promoting inclusiveness and improved connectivity to public space can also have detrimental effects by furthering exclusion of certain disenfranchised populations.
In this essay, I will endeavour to explore how frontier markets cities such as Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia are particularly vulnerable to climate change and how, through various measures of adaptation and mitigation at varying scale, the issue can be partially tackled. A number of potential strategies will be presented at a National, Municipal and Community level.
In this essay, I will endeavour to examine the role that resilience plays within the sustainability agenda. Are the two mutually exclusive or are both needed to achieve a sustainable equilibrium in our cities?
The essay will first define sustainability and resilience in their various dimensions as well as look at the impact that natural hazards have on our world. I will use the case study of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to highlight the case of a city that has turned its back on resilience to embrace sustainability and how this may impact its population. I will explore some solutions that Ulaanbaatar may adopt to improve its own resilience. Finally I will reflect on the changing needs of our urban environment and the role that resilience should take within its future development.
Over the past decade, the importance of urban space has returned to the forefront of the collective mind. Magazines, documentaries, books and public debates increasingly revolve around the use and misuse of our built environment whilst university courses and consultancies focusing on urban development spring up every day. As a result of this attention, studies are frequently carried out on the social and economic impact of our built space. Never has the knowledge of our urban environment been so great, yet never have the inequality of its citizens been so apparent. Stakeholders are given a conflicting message of a “global north” turned towards sustainability, the abandonment of the car as the first urban design prerogative and the pursuit of a ‘human scale’ for the privileged few while the ‘global south’ has less ambitious aims, centring around resilience, a pursuit of affordability and the provision of basic public services for all. In this race to the top, must the ‘global south’ truly forsake its sense of place and identity in the pursuit of emulating a vulnerable, flawed and often frail ‘global north’? Is sustainability achievable or must they settle for resilience instead? Should we achieve our utopian desires, is humankind destined to live in a globally uniform and sceptic urban environment as Hollywood would have us believe?