Every week, Batdorj Gongor heads to the northern section of Ulan Bator, where apartment buildings and paved streets give way to row after row of dirt lanes and fenced-in plots.
This is one of the Mongolian capital's ger (yurt) districts, named after the tents people live in until they can build a more permanent home. Since last May, Mr. Gongor has been knocking on doors and collaring passers-by.
On the surface, his pitch is straightforward. One hundred tugrik (about 7 cents) won't buy a bus ride across town or enough water to supply a family for three days. However, if every household along one block contributes 100 tugrik a day, soon there will be enough money to borrow against for emergencies or invest in neighborhood improvements.
The idea is not Gongor's nor that of the Urban Development Resource Center (UDRC), the small nongovernmental organization where he works as project manager. One of four full-time staffers, he is adapting a group-savings program developed by the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, based in Thailand.
But this is not about money. As Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student Sunaree Marshall says she discovered when she shadowed Gongor for eight weeks last summer, Gongor is using the savings group as "more of a tool than an end result. It's about bringing people together and building up the strength of the community," she says.
After only five months, resident Choijilsuren Erdenechuluun sees a difference. For years he tried to rally his neighbors to clean up the trash, he says. But it wasn't until Gongor introduced the concept of savings groups that things began to happen. Recently elected to head the association of the capital's seven new savings groups, Mr. Erdenechuluun points proudly to the clean street and the strip of concrete that serves as a sidewalk.
"People had lived next to each other eight to 10 years and not ever conversed," Ms. Marshall observes.
In Gongor's plan, one resident in each savings group goes door to door each day to collect the money. Then, every two weeks, representatives of the block's 14 or so households meet.
Gongor's role is to listen.
"He's respectful and understands where people are coming from," Marshall says. Gently, persistently, he helps them view their needs in a wider context.
In one of Mongolia's smaller cities, for example, one savings group wanted to build a playground; another wanted to install street lighting. Gongor suggested they coordinate their efforts, and now both blocks have access to a playground and lighted streets.
It all begins, he says, by establishing the savings group.
"Other countries are densely populated," Gongor explains through a translator, "therefore it is easier for them to collaborate. But here, we are scattered. We have no such habits."
Scattered indeed. Mongolia's 2.7 million people live in an area almost the size of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas combined. Only after moving to the city have Mongolians begun to live in close proximity.
The first spurt of urban growth occurred in the 1950s and '60s, after the Soviet-style communist regime collectivized farms and established industrial centers. Nomads flocked to cities in such numbers that by the '80s, 60 percent of Mongolia's population was urban.
When Mongolia declared independence in 1990, however, the laws changed: Individuals could now own livestock and choose where to live. Many returned to their ancestors' nomadic ways.
By the end of the decade, though, the trend reversed. After brutal winters decimated livestock, nomads flocked back to the capital in search of work, and the general economic downturn further fueled that trend. Today, more than half of Ulan Bator's million-plus inhabitants are forced to reside in ger districts, where the government grants each household 700 square meters (about 7,500 square feet).
Used to the privacy of open spaces, they immediately erect tall wooden fences.
"Inside his fenced area," Gongor says, "everyone is king" – with the result that waste gets dumped in the alleys and nobody takes responsibility for common areas.
In this northern area of Ulan Bator, many of the residents have electricity and enough money to build houses. But, as in other ger districts, there is no sewerage system, no trash collection, no running water. And while the rest of Ulan Bator gets heat from a network of steam pipes, ger district residents have to burn wood, paper, and whatever other flammable scraps they can find to keep warm over the eight-month-long winter. "People spend two-thirds of their income on heating," says Gongor, who lives in a ger district close to the city center.
Four years ago, as an architecture student focused on energy-efficient housing, Gongor entered a contest with a proposal for making low-cost building materials out of ash. His reward was an internship at the UDRC, which had just formed.
Gongor still champions energy-efficient and environmentally sound construction projects. He dreams of the day ger district residents will adopt composting toilets and burn homemade briquettes of sawdust and dung. He would love to replace every wooden fence with a chain-link substitute – lighter on the land and more neighborly.
While the architect in him scours the Internet for ecologically innovative solutions and disseminates them on a blog, his social-worker side believes the real agent for change is a strong community. And his conversion to Christianity reassures him that there is more to life than making money.
Among the many projects he is proud of, one stands out: A group of single mothers in Edernet, a city west of the capital, have pooled both savings and land. They have built communal latrines and greenhouses and have drawn up plans for homes they will make with bricks of clay, cement, and sawdust.
There is still a long way to go. Gongor works 12-hour days, dividing his time between meeting with savings groups, approaching city officials, and knocking on the doors of strangers.
"My boss once said that the best way to recognize a good architect is by his shoes," Gongor says. "If they are dirty, then he is a good architect."
Gongor's shoes are filthy.