The world is urbanizing at breakneck speeds. As of 2008, more people are living in cities than at any time in our existence. The Economist predicts that urban populations in developed countries will reach 86% by 2050. China, for better or worse, is leading this charge away from the countryside and into the nation’s urban centers along the eastern coast.
They come for myriad reasons – promises of more economic opportunities; to further their education; even to make a break from their past and create a new persona. Government responses to increased demand are just as diverse. What is readily apparent is that demand, especially for housing, is quickly going to outpace supply.
Already, China is home to many of the world’s high-rise residential buildings. Look out of any window, down any road and expansive apartment complexes stretch as far as the eye can see. What the cities lack in ground space they make up for in height. This year will mark the opening of the Shanghai Tower, the world’s second tallest building. The mixed-use development has plans of incorporating residential units among its 121 floors.
And it’s not only the buildings that are growing sky high. The cost of buying a space in Shanghai has risen by 18.8% since January 2013. Even wealthy locals and foreigners are finding it increasingly difficult to afford living in the city. In fact, a recent survey of the world’s most expensive cities ranked Shanghai 21st, ahead of New York and Beijing.
Needless to say, those coming to Shanghai from the countryside are not likely on a six-figure income. They are priced out of the high-rises that blanket the city and social services to provide affordable housing are lacking at best. The Government knows this, but has had quite a few hiccoughs in implementing a meaningful plan. As this cohort of urban immigrants are the true drivers of urbanization in China, what options do they have for housing that is not only affordable, but offers a decent modicum of human decency?
As one of the world’s largest ports, Shanghai is well placed to dynamically influence this question in a positive way. Extremely low-tech, but highly resourceful, repurposing shipping containers as an architectural base is beginning to spread. While the use of shipping containers might be a contested issue among architects, container communities and developments have been around for some time. Tony’s Farm, a local organic food producer, has repurposed containers to create their new offices, while containers are the material of choice in a new migrant-worker community center sponsored by local non-profit INCLUDED.
Among Shanghai’s poor migrant population, the containers offer a low-cost alternative to the city’s housing market. Renting for a fraction of the cost, sometimes at less than $80 per month, they may not be the most glamorous of residences but certainly serve their purpose. One resident was quoted as saying that “[t]he iron containers are quite solid and I do not have to worry about leakages during rain or the roof collapsing.” Several pictorials sum up the plight, and the hope, that reusing shipping containers embodies. While substandard in many ways, retrofitting containers is certainly feasible and comes with several advantages.
Of course there are also the current disadvantages of licensing, insulation and zoning. I’m confident, though, that usage of containers is a step in the right direction. Global examples abound where shipping container architecture is entering building codes – Southern California, London and Cape Town to name a few. Sure, acceptance and use is going to be an issue regardless of advantages. For the throngs moving to cities around the world everyday, though, the pool of options continues to shrink.