Sadly, all too often, when major UK retail companies talk about being ‘committed’ to green and sustainable policies it all feels a bit forced. Meaningful green strategies are all about being innovative rather than just repeating what others have said or done. Without innovation… well, let’s face it, we wouldn’t have realised anything was wrong in the first place (and thus, we’d still think that the earth was an infinite resource that we could merrily pillage forever, and that smoking was good for us).
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Boxpark in Shoreditch, East London, can only be described as a shopping mall with a difference. Sixty recycled shipping units sit next to and on top of each other in the middle of a disused railway goods yard – a new and unusual space for fashion and accessories stores, art galleries, charities, restaurants and cafes.
Why now? Creator Roger Wade assures us he has always loved industrial design. When he took this passion and combined it with his retail expertise (he’s the ex-owner of Boxfresh), he felt Boxpark was a natural progression. Could it also have something to do with sixty shipping containers being a great deal cheaper to construct than a shopping centre? Possibly. But what Wade has created is more than just a lump of iron with clothes inside. Boxpark has another side.
The ethos behind Boxpark, aside from great, accessible retail in a friendly, chilled out environment, is sustainability and community. They are committed to keeping their social, ecological and economic aspects in balance with the Shoreditch area, something which will help them succeed in the long-term. Although they don’t shout from the rooftops about it, if you look closer you can see Boxpark doing lots of small but crucial things for the environment, local business and local residents. They encourage fair trade and organic produce, support local food outlets (such as gourmet coffee seller Foxcroft & Ginger), offer local job opportunities and attempt to eliminate construction waste. Minimal construction waste is crucial, because Boxpark aren’t here to stay. The Shoreditch lease ends in five years, and the development has plans to move to other sites nationally and even internationally. With their specifically tailored containers, Boxpark can transport themselves anywhere by crane in as little as seven days. This adaptability is what Boxpark hopes will cut building and fuel costs and create a small, eco-friendly carbon footprint.
In terms of community, Boxpark have deliberately created a space that gives locals somewhere to relax. They have deliberately chosen to rent to a range of up-and-coming local designers in order to give them a platform for their work. There are also two containers given free of charge to two charities: Amnesty International and Art Against Knives. This means they can raise awareness whilst giving locals somewhere to socialise, and the possibility of work experience.
Some may be skeptical of the charities’ presence, arguing that it’s only been included to give the development more sway with planning officials. It’s true that Boxpark is a money making exercise, but it seems wrong to overly criticise this development when so many landlords are simply charging the highest rent to the cookie-cutter high street brands that can afford them. If more cities had a Boxpark, supporting innovative local businesses in low-impact architecture, we think it would be a step in the right direction.
What happens to this community if Boxpark moves on in five years’ time? I spoke to centre manager Stephen Bryant, who assured me that the future’s bright: the land will be used for other projects that will continue the regeneration of the area. Boxpark is one of the most innovative, renewable, supportive projects we’ve seen in a long time – and other London developments should be paying attention.