I was thinking about how shipping containers seem to have become the new pop-up urban spaces for any number of uses  – from retail, to culture, to even hospitality – and thought of the term “Container Urbanism”.  And then I thought to myself, “what a brilliant term to describe the trend!”, and was patting myself on the back for coining it – until I googled it and realised that others thought of it a little before I did.


Missed nomenclature glory aside, it is certainly something to sit up (pop up? OK, no bad jokes) and take notice of.

Cheap Housing in Africa

This is a trend that might have started in Africa. Shipping containers have a sea life of 5-10 years, and shipping companies have found it easy and profitable to dispose off their old containers in Africa. Some companies like Safmarine even donate these old containers to charities that work in Africa. Critics call it an ugly dump of western trade, which is entirely true, but at the same time, one cannot argue with the fact that these containers are providing entire communities with a cheap and recycled, if not entirely durable form of shelter. It in fact has gone well beyond housing – containers have become shops, warehouses, offices, and even schools. I’m not sure this is at all a solution to the developmental issues of African cities (it in fact might just be exacerbating the problem by generating more urban waste) but I’m sure that the people who’ve found shelter and livelihood in these cheap containers would hail them as life-savers, even if for the short  term. Little wonder, then, that there are now formal companies in Africa that “specialise” in providing container developments. You read that right.

Container Retail

And where the West smells a profitable trend, it runs to, with open arms. How many “pop-up” (there goes that term again) retail formats using containers have you heard of in the last five years? if you live in London or New York, chances are that the term “pop-retail” has started to give you a rash.

The most notable one of these in the news recently has been Boxpark – the word’s first shopping mall made entirely out of shipping containers (about fifty of them) in Shoreditch in East London. It is not a permanent structure, though – true to its pop-up (argh) philosophy, it will be around for only five years. If you haven’t heard of it that much, don’t worry, it’s probably abut to “pop-up” near you soon. This is one trend that’s showing little signs of dying out.

Container Everything-You-Can-Think-Of

But it doesn’t stop here. From cinemas, to restaurants, to hotel rooms, to office spaces, everything and everyone is jumping onto the container bandwagon. It has moved well beyond housing for the underprivileged. Architects are now designing  container houses for the super-privileged. Containers are literally taking over the world.

Container Disaster Relief

But it’s not just all profit-making and consumerism faddism*. Containers are being put to good use in disaster relief in various parts of the world. Notably, in Christchurch, New Zealand in Haiti, post earthquake, these containers are being used to provide essential services like health-care, grocery staples and education, and also to quite literally, restart the economy in ravaged Christchurch.

*Faddism: The trend of following a particular fad, just because it is a fad. Now there’s a useful new term for you. Don’t forget to mention that I coined it, though.

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