On the gritty outskirts of Ulan Bator, where heavy trucks lumber along potholed roads and packs of mangy dogs patrol litter-strewn alleys, a shiny new billboard is attracting curious onlookers. The sign describes an ambitious plan to modernise the neighbourhood, the 11th ward of Bayanhoshuu district, raising it from slum conditions to the first-world in a flash. A 'before' image shows the neighbourhood's layout of uneven streets, dead-ends and labyrinth of alleys. To the right, an 'after' image promises a sort of American suburbia experience of neatly trimmed lawns, pavements and quaint bungalows in the shade of poplar trees. 'This is our dream,' community organiser Lhamsuren Ragchabazar said. 'If we can redesign the neighbourhood people will have more conveniences and a better standard of living.' The plan may sound like fantasy for this poor country, but Ragchabazar was undeterred. A crafty land readjustment scheme, he explained, would fund the project. Residents are being asked to give a portion of their property, fences will be moved closer together and the excess land will be sold to raise money for much-needed infrastructure such as roads and plumbing. 'One needs to give up something in order to get something better in return,' said Hirano Ryuko, a project adviser for the Japan International Co-operation Agency, a development body that is supporting the government initiative. 'Properties will be smaller but will have more value if the neighbourhood is in better shape.' But only a handful of the families in the neighbourhood have signed up for the plan. 'Land re-adjustment programmes take 10 to 15 years,' Tsedendash Tulga, the head of Ulan Bator's Land Management and Planning Division, said. 'It can take that long just to change the mind of the community.' And so it goes for Ulan Bator's outer districts, which have sprawled out of control over the past two decades. Rural migrants have flooded the capital in search of work; most of the new arrivals end up in settlements on the city limits such as Bayanhoshuu. They bring with them the round, felt tents used by nomads called ger in Mongolian or yurt from the Turkic. Their widespread use gives the districts a sense of impermanence. The wood fences dividing the ger create a maze of walls reminiscent of frontier outposts of the American west. The tents are not new to the city. Since the mid-1600s, residents had a habit of moving the town every few years, until it came to rest at its current location in 1778. Traditionally the ger were set up like a protective ring around the main monastery, Gandantegchinlin. The city grew rapidly during the last century when Soviet town planners arrived with blueprints for a modern urban core. But most of the ger districts remained, expanding into the valleys. Migrants continue to arrive and occupy any possible patch of earth, often in flood-prone areas. Last July eight people died in floods when their ger, placed in steep-sided gullies, were washed away. The uncontrolled growth of the ger areas means that no space has been set aside for roads, let alone basic necessities such as underground sewerage systems. In Bayanhoshuu, residents line up outside a pump house for water, which they cart home in plastic barrels. Hot showers can be had at a local bathhouse, though it is too small to handle 10,000 residents. 'It's a difficult life because we have to go a long way for water,' retired state employee Puruvdulam Tsetsegee said. 'And showers are very expensive. We have a family of six and each shower costs 1,800 tugrik (HK$9.60). On top of this we have to buy food and other necessities.' Problems are exacerbated in winter when temperatures plummet to minus 30 degrees Celsius. Residents keep warm by burning coal or wood in their pot-bellied stoves, although this is of little use during midnight runs to the nearest outhouse. In winter, the accumulated soot caused by tens of thousands of stoves creates an appalling black cloud that engulfs the entire city. This winter an estimated 700,000 tonnes of coal is needed to supply the city's 160,000 ger district families. The situation is not helped by Ulan Bator's topography - it is surrounded by low mountains that trap the poisonous air until a strong wind can blow it away. The smog has had harmful affects. Respiratory diseases among children under five are three times greater in Ulan Bator compared to children living outside the city. Planners said the long-term goal was to install central heating, reducing dependence on coal. That could take decades. The task of sorting out this mess has been left to Tulga, who occupies a small office in Ulan Bator's gleaming new City Hall. He said almost three-quarters of city residents lived in ger districts and the challenge of moving them to apartments was hampered by the increasing numbers of new migrants. 'It is difficult to control migration. The people have a constitutional right to live wherever they want so we can't stop them from moving to the capital,' Tulga said. A lack of zoning laws means that the newly arrived pitch their tents wherever they please. The city is dealing with that problem by dividing the districts into three categories. Zone One, closest to the urban core, will be transformed into mixed-use housing with apartments and commercial areas. Zone Two, slightly farther out, will remain ger districts, only better organised and connected to the urban infrastructure. Zone Three, mainly the new developments on the outskirts, will be torn down and returned to its natural state. People living in Zone Three will be moved to other parts of the city, increasing the density of the capital but reducing the sprawl that has wrought environmental problems such as pollution and land degradation. The crush has had a ripple effect on Ulan Bator's centre, where once-empty boulevards teem with Korean taxis, Humvees and Land Cruisers. In the mid-day rush hour it can take 30 minutes to drive three kilometres. 'We cannot blame one person, like the mayor or the prime minister. Every city worker is jointly responsible for these issues. We all have to come together to solve these problems,' Tulga said. The city has recently given him a boost by installing streets lights along the alleys of Bayanhoshuu. Some of the lights are solar-powered, part of a government effort to use environmentally friendly technology. But despite the token gestures by City Hall, Tulga admitted the onus was on the public to reform their own neighbourhoods. 'The main purpose of the pilot project is to show the community that it can work with the city to make necessary changes for a better life,' he said.