This month, Mongolia’s parliament will vote on the feasibility of the construction of a new cultural and religious capital – ‘Maidar’ – out in the steppe 30km from Ulaanbaatar. What started as humble drawings for a model eco-town for 20,000 people has been redesigned as a city for 300,000 in light of a population crisis in the nearby capital city. However, the building of Maidar might be a talking point for everyone except Mongolians.
Maidar has been planned by the German architect company RSAA in collaboration with the Grand Maitreya Foundation and will be built to German environmental standards. With wind and solar farms included in the plans, there are hopes that it will become a beacon of sustainability.
The city will be planned from the centre working outwards in a series of commissioned phases. First, the central Maitreya statue and Buddha complex will be built, followed by concentric hubs for housing, offices, schools, healthcare and tourism. These hubs are intended to become local communities in keeping with the concept that daily services should be able to be reached by a maximum of a 400m walk. Transport will prioritise ‘urban arteries’ for pedestrians, cyclists and small electric buses.
The project claims that Maidar will be sensitive to the surrounding mountain area ‘keeping the character of the landscape alive and making it visible from each construction site’. Rainwater will be channelled from the surrounding hills into an independent water system. The final stage of the project is a ‘green triangle’ tree-planting scheme which will extend 90 degrees in each direction from the city centre and is intended to slow the process of desertification.
For such a grand and oasis-like project, the main issue is money. Chief architect, Stephen Schmitz, admits that funds are coming from eager Chinese investors who will buy off portions of the project. Dr Troy Sternberg, a landscape and Gobi desert expert at the University of Oxford, describes the designs as ‘more like a dream project. Mongolians can't explain the realities of it’. He also contends that most of the nomads that have moved into Ulaanbaatar won’t be able to afford the new apartments drawn up for Maidar, and that few Mongolian companies have the funds to invest in their construction.
‘Further to that, the physical logistics would not work,’ says Sternberg. ‘The area only gets 200mm of rainwater per year so there is not much for an independent water system to catch.’ Meanwhile, he thinks that a green triangle might not be a realistic use of resources: ‘Preventing desertification is still a contentious issue. If developers really wanted a simple way to slow desertification, they would build more shallow wells to disperse the animal herds. That way, the grasslands nearer the Gobi wouldn't be trampled away by too much livestock around too few water sources.’