By Uyanga Tsoggerel
Ulaanbaatar’s green spaces are gradually disappearing as the urban planning carefully laid out by the Soviets is being eroded by greed, corruption and a distinct lack of comprehension of the essential elements that make up a liveable city.
In 1991, when Mongolia became a democratic country and the Soviets left Ulaanbaatar to its own devices, they left behind a city that was far from pretty or endowed with interesting architecture but that was at least well planned with ample green spaces and vast open areas.
The ruling class of Ulaanbaatar has since managed to destroy that precious inheritance with poor to non-existent urban planning, conflicts of interest between the city government and its business class not to mention endemic corruption at all levels.
Over the past 10 years, we have witnessed the loss of countless courtyards, pavements, open spaces, parking plots and parks to ugly, soulless buildings. It is only last month that yet another large courtyard and its kindergarden fell victim to the bulldozers and diggers (the one directly behind MCS Plaza and the drama theatre). Over the past couple of months (co-incidentally since the elections), we have seen a resurgence of public spaces being built on, this can clearly be seen on Seoul Street opposite the Russian Embassy. Now that the Statue of Lenin has been taken down from the park in front of the Ulaanbaatar Hotel, can we expect that small park to disappear soon?
This growing jungle of concrete that is creeping up around us is gradually suffocating the habitants of the city and will make Ulaanbaatar one of the least liveable urban environments on earth.
Today it is the Children’s Park of Ulaanbaatar, the last remaining bastion of green space in this urban jungle that is set to disappear under new luxury hotels, shopping malls and entertainment centres. While those developments are indeed needed for the economic growth of Mongolia, they should not, under any circumstances be built to the detriment of the people forced to live in this environment.
While excuses could me made by stating that the Government is young, immature and inexperienced in matters of urban planning, it could further be stated that the lack of infrastructure developments in the city is forcing the hand of the mayor in allowing large scale developments on the few sizeable plots of land left in the city that are connected to the infrastructure. The Children’s park is indeed the very last remaining greenfield plot of land in the city centre on which large scale developments could be envisioned.
Having said this, there are still large plots of land available for redevelopment in the city, the Bayangol hotel land for instance would make a prime target, the land where the UB expo site is or even the land of the Narantuul market would all qualify. Why does the Government not force the redevelopment of those plots of land instead? It might well be illegal to do so but building on land classified as National Park such as Zaisan or the Children’s park is equally illegal.
If MCS absolutely feels like they need to build the Shangri-La complex then why not destroy the Grand Khan Irish pub as well as the MCS Plaza for its construction instead of the park - it probably has something to do with the loss of the formidable cash cow that represents those two properties.
It is not only the Children’s park which is today at risk, there are talks of building on the parliament park as well as demolish the Mongolian National University and its adjoining park. Soon there will be absolutely no green space left in the city centre.
It must be understood that green spaces within a city are not just something pretty to look at but forms an essential part of the social and economic development of any city. London has Hyde Park (amongst many others) Paris has the Jardin du Luxembourg, New York has Central Park, Tokyo has the Imperial Park, Singapore has the East Coast Park and so forth, there is not a single world-class city that does not have a large green space at its heart. Such a space is essential for the relaxation, well being and balance of the community. It is a space where the youth can let off steam by playing games and socialising with one another, a space where adults can enjoy concerts, where families can enjoy a day out or a picnic on the grass, where people can walk their dog and interact with their local community. Without it, the community loses its touch with those around them, it losses its incentive to go outside and soon enough we see increases in violent incidents, vandalisation and a loss of the social fabric of what makes a city great.
Beyond those fundamental reasons, is it not enough to know that we live in the world’s most polluted city and yet persist in destroying its very few remaining green spaces, what impact will this have on our healths and mental well-being. It should further be noted, that when the Soviets left, they left behind a comprehensive master-plan for the future development of the city which specifically prohibited development to the north of the city near the Selbe river as the loss of that green space would dry up the river bed and threaten the delicate geological balance of the city.
It is time that the citizen of Ulaanbaatar stand up to protect their city, it is not only their right to do so but I would rather argue that it is their duty to do so. It is the people of Mongolia that stood up to their government in 1991 and faced the might of the powerful Soviet Empire (and won), the time has now come for the same people to fight for the sheer survival of the city.
If the city does indeed go through with this aberration, it would only be fair that the citizens of Ulaanbaatar, to whose detriment this is being done, be justly compensated for their loss and the damage it will do to their own healths and those of future generations to come.
Let us thus consider, what could be a fair compensation. The city has suggested the construction of a ridiculously small and ill-conceived new park near the current site of the black market, this is absolutely no consolation whatsoever and cannot be considered a just trade.
If we base ourselves on an estimate value of nearly a billion USD for the whole park in addition to fair compensation for the loss of green space for this and future generation, in addition to the loss of Real Estate value to properties around the park and in its vicinity, we rapidly reach an astronomical sum that no one entity or government can afford to pay, as it should be.
It is unclear how it is that the government has auctioned off or assigned use licenses on the Children’s park, official papers state that the license for 74% of the park was initially given to Itochu Corporation of Japan for the tiny sum of only 69 million MNT before being passed on to the Bodi group. It is sadly an open secret that the Government of Mongolia is increasingly controlled by the countries largest corporate entities, evidence of this can be found simply by looking around Sukhbaatar square, which other capital city around the world has its parliament square dominated by corporate headquarters and not by the institute of the government itself?
The Children’s Park, must be saved at all costs, we have only one real park left in the city, unlike projects such as OT, it cannot be renegotiated later on, mistakes made now cannot be erased or changed. The current city government is too inexperienced, immature and prone to short-sighted decisions to be allowed to sell off the park to a group of oligopolies who use power, network and corruption to gain an unfair financial advantage over the people of the city.
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