Something interesting sprang up in the railway land around Shoreditch High Street station shortly before Christmas. It had been heralded on billboards for months, to the extent that I thought it might never arrive. But arrive it did – a number of tastefully painted, walk-in shipping containers in black and white, stacked two-high: Boxpark, ‘the world’s first pop-up mall’.
It’s not bad, actually, as shopping malls go. The owners strip and refit the containers to create low cost, low risk, ‘box shops’ and cafes. They feature household and local clothing brands and also provide space for campaigners, such as Amnesty International.
The ‘pop-up paradigm‘ has exploded over the last couple of years fuelled, in part, by the amount of vacant retail space on our high streets – due to the recession and the rise in internet shopping and out of town centres. A report by the Local Data Company on shop vacancy rates published this week showed that, ‘although the number of empty shops had “stabilised” at a national level in the last six months of 2011 the outlook was bleak: “The odds are stacked against a positive take-up of shops and as such the new reality of 48,000 empty shops is here to stay unless an alternative use or purpose can be found.”’ (Guardian)
Last May, the Government appointed Mary Portas, “one of the UKs leading retail experts and host of TV’s Queen of Shops“, to look into the future of the High Street. The Portas Review, published in December, “made 28 recommendations including “town teams” to lead community regeneration projects and the relaxation of planning laws to allow defunct stores to be turned into gyms, creches and bingo halls.” (Guardian) The Government responded last week, by launching a competition “to choose 12 towns to become ‘Portas Pilots’, with the winners benefiting from a share of £1 million to help turn around their “unloved and unused” high streets.”
Are more gyms, creches and bingo halls really what we want, though? These have their place, of course, but will they really help fuel the regeneration that so many of our town centres – and our society more generally – really need? Are chichi shipping containers really the answer to what ails us? (And isn’t there an irony in using these utilitarian symbols of world trade in this way?) What do last year’s riots, with all the associated, opportunistic looting, tell us about ourselves? How are we, as Buddhists, to respond to ‘ghost towns’, austerity and unrest?
One response is to occupy the shops – and I mean legally. If the planning laws are to be relaxed to allow community spaces to spring up in town centres, shouldn’t we, as Buddhists and meditators get involved? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a pop-up meditation hall on every high street, a visible, accessible antidote to the more harmful effects of consumerism? What could be more appropriate: a joyous, transient embodiment of the four noble truths – a momentary shrine to the meaningful – right at the heart of our consumerist, materialistic society? When do we start? Pop-up, people!