Success of Urban-to-Rural Migration Hinges on the Consideration of Urban Planning in the Expanding Cities in Mongolia

Photo: Darkhan city. @Governor's Office of Darkhan-Uul province.

Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, is home to more than half of the entire country’s population as it provides better economic, social, and cultural opportunities. Its extremely rapid population growth in the last three decades have not been on par with its city planning, posing serious challenges for policymakers. The lack of city planning’s efforts spans from limited access to social resources to environmental pollution, including air, soil, and noise, affecting all citizens, from ger dwellers to those living in luxury condos in the city center of Ulaanbaatar.

The same push factors that have driven migration towards the capital, have now nearly exhausted its resources, putting a strain on Ulaanbaatar’s citizens. Over crowdedness, traffic, air, noise and soil pollution are byproducts of the hustle and bustle of an urban lifestyle. On the contrary, secondary cities and rural areas are mostly described as peaceful and safer environments to live in. These desirable descriptors starkly contrast those characteristics that are causing social stress for the capital’s population.

While measures are proposed and taken by different levels of the government to alleviate the adverse side effects of Ulaanbaatar’s rapid population growth, a new idea is being explored by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Mongolia Country Office: the incentivization of urban-to-rural migration.

Promoting urban-to-rural migration away from Ulaanbaatar towards smaller cities such as Darkhan and Erdenet disperses the population, contributes to decentralization, and removes a major strain on the capital. While reverse migration can be eulogized, it is crucial that it be approached carefully and thoughtfully, so urban planning errors from Ulaanbaatar are not replicated in smaller Mongolian cities.

The initial reasons that pushed Mongolians to move to the capital city continue to present a real drive for people to remain in Ulaanbaatar. Indeed, the capital city offers economic, social and cultural opportunities unmatched elsewhere. Better employment opportunities, salaries, cultural events, social events and infrastructure, only to list a few, are among the key reasons why Mongolians continue to move to Ulaanbaatar and are not willing to leave. Arguably, unless and until secondary cities are able to offer competitive economic, social and cultural opportunities, Ulaanbaatar will remain the host city of choice.

However, it is also important to mention the key attributes smaller urban centers have to offer those looking to move away from Ulaanbaatar. Described as peaceful and secure environments - stress-free, cleaner, calmer, less crowded and safer, secondary cities can harness these qualities to attract Ulaanbaatar migrants.

But urban-to-rural migration cannot be addressed in a vacuum. The interlinked concepts of urban planning and migration are critically important to address in the Mongolian context.

While such programs focus on incentivizing reverse migration by studying pull and push factors, consideration of urban planning prior to the expansion of smaller urban centers is of the utmost importance to avoid the pitfall of overpopulation and of rapid city development. Urban planning is an important aspect of expansion for small cities as it allows the government to provide necessary social infrastructures for the anticipated population growth. It includes the mapping of social infrastructure placements, providing proper amenities and accounting for the rise in population in meeting all their needs.

Ulaanbaatar’s rapid growth coupled with the lack of forward-looking urban planning contributed to the current stresses the city is experiencing. Research, carried out by UBC students studying this internal migration in Mongolia, indicates that without proper urban planning and without the consideration of population rise, the same issues will arise in smaller urban centers, and risk creating the conditions that today are pulling people away from Ulaanbaatar. The focus of the research was on the city of Darkhan, but the same lessons can apply widely to smaller urban centers such as Erdenet.

While these cities are anticipating growth, they don’t yet have the proper infrastructure to receive the expected number of incoming migrants. Applying lessons from Ulaanbaatar’s mistakes highlights the need for secondary cities to ensure there is sufficient social infrastructure provision, consideration of transportation needs and overall prioritize urban planning prior to receiving large numbers of migrants.


This article was written by the team of student from the University of British Columbia: Alyssa Brochu, Paola Matha, Nellie Kamau and Niloufar Vahid-Massoudi, as part of their project development proposal for IOM Mongolia CO.


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