Copenhagen’s misunderstood, precarious self-governing paradise

Christiania in Copenhagen is unique among the Western world’s neighborhoods. It’s also *highly mischaracterized* by most who have written about, heard about or even visited the place.

My amazing friend and host, Tamey, is enjoying a vegetarian meal at Morgenstedet, one of Christiania’s many charming little restaurants and shops. Everyone loves Tamey; he typifies the spirit and gentle soul of Christiania.

In fact, few visitors even bother to go into the heart of the neighborhood, which makes ALL other urban neighborhoods on Earth feel like the concrete- and car-dominated places that they are.

Christiania’s visitors sorely miss out by not venturing far beyond Pusher Street. I’ve visited all five districts three times each. I deeply miss Christiania’s lack of cars, concrete and fences.

Also known as Freetown Christiania, Freetown and “the town” (the last moniker referred to only by locals), the “ia” suffix is a reminder that such a community existed long before “Portlandia” became a semi-household name.

Its population rarely straying far from 900, Christiania was established in 1971 when artists and squatters (along with families looking for affordable housing and a playground for their children) took over an 84-acre vacant military base and proclaimed their own independent nation on land coveted by no one at the time, even though it’s separated from the heart of Copenhagen by only a river, a canal, several bicycle bridges (including the world’s busiest) and a handful of dense urban blocks.

Christiania’s entrance gate

A funny numerical coincidence never reported until now
My lifelong passion for both math and maps (detailed in my painfully honest “About Me” page) led me over the years to find trivial facts and coincidences that probably no one else knows or even finds interesting. 🙂 One such fact is that Christiania’s entrance gate (which proudly proclaims, “You are now leaving the European Union”) is 1.11 kilometers from Europe’s most famous pedestrian-only shopping street, Stroget, whose length is, coincidentally, 1.11 kilometers.

While this incredibly trivial stat is meant only for humor, it’s a clear indication of Christiania’s highly desirable location. The last section of this post is, in fact, devoted to the gentrification pressures that threaten Christiania’s very existence.

Common assumptions about Christiania, all of which are false

Near-universal assumptions held by almost anyone who’s heard of Christiania are that:

  • Photos are not allowed
  • Drugs are legal
  • You can buy any type of drug you’d like to here
  • Hard drugs are sold
  • Outsiders are encouraged to buy and sell drugs on Pusher Street
  • There’s no system of government or laws (after all, it’s called “Freetown”)
  • The housing is essentially disheveled, sloppy campsites
  • No one has any regard to his or her impact on neighbors
  • The residential areas are dangerous or uninviting
  • There’s nothing to do in Christiania other than deal drugs

It turns out that ALL of these widely held beliefs are patently false. In fact, the truth often turns out to be the exact opposite.

I’ll group the misconceptions by category: photos, drugs, laws and the community.

This is the commercial core of Christiania. You won’t see any signs of hard drug usage; it’s the most peaceful neighborhood I’ve ever visited. Dozens of additional fascinating shops can be found throughout the 84-acre community.

The famous “No Photo” signs about which you always read and hear

Photos have *always* been allowed everywhere outside of “Pusher Street,” which is the infamous “drug zone” that occupies just 1% of Christiania. That’s why this post is full of pictures of Christiania!

In fact, photos are now allowed even on Pusher Street (I have no such photos, as they were strictly forbidden when I visited in 2015). The once ubiquitous “No Photos” signs on Pusher Street are now painted over.

I personally found Pusher Street to be incredibly boring, so I was never interested in taking pictures of a bunch of ramshackle booths with black curtains concealing what took place inside.

I honored the rule forbidding photos of Pusher Street. This photo, taken just above Pusher Street in an earthen amphitheater, is legal. Crowds gather almost daily to enjoy concerts and other events throughout the summer.

Regarding the incessant claims about drug use

The drug situation couldn’t possibly be more misunderstood. Marijuana is not legal anywhere in Denmark—not even in Christiania or on Pusher Street itself. It’s true that drugs have been bought, sold and traded on Pusher Street (near Christiania’s entrance gate) for decades, but the police have largely turned a blind eye to the practice.

However, hard drugs (cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, etc) are expressly forbidden in Christiania. Hash and weed have generally been the extent of what’s been sold on Pusher Street.

Just outside Pusher Street (the “Green Light District” marked by the “No Photo” sign at the far left; this photo IS legal) are activities and shops that are infinitely more interesting than whatever took place on Pusher Street. Notice all the Christiania flag symbols (three yellow dots over a red background).

Christiania’s residents have, in fact, grown increasingly intolerant of the activities on Pusher Street (again contradicting the usual assumptions). This reached a boiling point following the shooting of police officer in 2016. Police shootings in Denmark are extremely rare; the last officer killed by a criminal in Denmark was in 1995.

Nearly all the buildings from the old army barracks were saved and converted into artists’ studios, extremely affordable housing, event spaces and shops. This is just outside of Pusher Street. No police officers were seen, and cars are *never* encountered within Christiana’s borders. Den grå hal (‘The grey hall’), formerly a riding house with a unique Bohlendach roof construction, is now Christiania’s largest concert venue

Christiania residents held a communal meeting and decided to tear down the stalls on Pusher Street, which they did the very next day: September 2, 2016. Residents also successfully urged visitors to *not* purchase cannabis in Christiania.


A near-perfect democracy–totally counter to lawlessness

This brings up the extreme misconception about the anarchist, “lawless” nature of Christiania. Once again, nothing could be further from the truth.

I’m about to enter the nearest residential area of this “lawless” community. As you can see, I’m terrified. 🙂

In fact, at the very outset, Christiania’s residents developed their own rules, including “Christiania’s Common Law,” which is posted on several signs as you walk through the community.

Common Law strictly forbids:

  • Weapons
  • Hard drugs
  • Violence of any kind
  • Private cars (again, within Christiania’s borders)
  • Biker gang colors/clothing
  • Bulletproof clothing
  • Sale of fireworks
  • Use of any explosive devices
  • Stealing and stolen goods

The signs are posted in Danish and English, and pictures help make the laws very clear to people in any language.

Now that peace has been fully established by the nine laws, it seems like the only rule left is: RELAX and HAVE FUN!

Christiania even has an official flag, seen below. A little-known fact is that the yellow dots represent those of the three i’s in Christiania. Naturally, the community also has its own currency (although Danish currency is accepted).

Christiania’s official flag. Credit: Liftarn/Creative Commons/Via commons.wikimedia.org

Christiania is governed by consensus democracy, independent of Denmark. So, all major decisions are made only after commonly agreed upon by all residents. Many different forums are offered for residents to be involved in decisions.

Wherever two roads meet, whether paved or not, a giant, beautiful mural is certain to appear.

The biggest of annual meeting is the Common Meeting, where all Christiania residents of gather to discuss a variety of issues. Budget negotiations and major disputes are resolved at this meeting. Democracy continues to evolve in Christiania, but among the constants are residents’ continued efforts to protect their basic values.

Amazingly, you can even win if you’re not in the majority. This is because a minority can veto a decision reached by majority consensus. Then, the majority works to find a solution that’s acceptable to the minority.

Nowhere else on Earth is this scene more fitting than in Christiania.

Christiania’s lovely counterculture community

While there are strict laws meant to literally keep the peace, Christiania maintains a very counterculture vibe. After all, the local slogan is “Kun døde fisk flyder med strømmen,” (“Only dead fish swim with the current”).

This is perfectly normal in Christiania. When did we forget that climbing in trees and simply hanging out is fun?!?

Experimenting has also been encouraged since squatters first arrived. Resident and archivist Ole Lykke moved to Christiania in 1979. As he told The Guardian in September 2016, “You’d have a good idea, you’d go ahead with it, and if somebody complained, you’d deal with it. If not, then you’d just go ahead.”

Residents call this “the castle.” There’s a trail with stairs built into the short but steep trail directly behind the house. I walked the trail at least three times. Everyone is welcome to walk everywhere in Christiania.
This glass house was made from recycled windows. Again, neighbors don’t mind, and they are incredibly courteous toward each other.
Credit: seier+seier/CreativeCommons via Wikipedia

While Christiania is governed autonomously, it is clearly within the city of Copenhagen; it lies within the exceedingly sought-after and extremely close-in neighborhood of Christianhavn (which translates to “Christian’s Harbor”).

The origin of “Christian” in these names
“Christian” refers to Christianhavn’s founder, King Christian IV, the longest running monarch in Danish history (1588-1648). He was from nearby Copenhagen, and Christianhavn is the small fortified merchant town he founded.

Even the most densely populated parts of Christiania have a delightfully overgrown, narrow, communal and eminently walkable feel, almost like the rapidly disappearing Hutong villages in Beijing.

Residents have long rejected the concept of individual ownership. One beautiful result is that the few cars privately owned must be kept outside of Christiania’s borders.

Instead of garages, private cars and white picket fences, homes in Christiania are surrounded by bicycles. Some folks even hang their laundry to dry, which is a clear violation in many American covenant-controlled communities. Some homes are even occupied by over five non-related adults–the horror! 🙂

A total lack of property ownership presented major challenges, most notably a decades-long struggle with the Danish government. Finally, in 2012, government offered to sell the 84-acre property to residents at a deep discount. It was accepted, and residents finally turned from squatters into land owners. However, the community was forced to change its law regarding property ownership, which many residents greatly opposed.

Paths always follow natural human “desire lines” through Christiania, where the land is owned by a community collective.

They realized, however, that had this purchase not been made, the federal government would have made such significant changes in major infrastructure that the community would eventually be indistinguishable from other Danish neighborhoods. Not only was Christiania saved, but the deal was made under the creative stipulation that “individuals would not actually control the land; the ‘collective’ would.” A foundation was set up to buy the land, and residents pay a “mortgage” of sorts that rises slightly each year.

When you’re not spending 60 hours each week trying to pay living expenses, you can create a whole lot more art! 🙂

Christiania also officially became part of Copenhagen at this time, but the municipal government has allowed residents to continue living undisturbed by the rest of the city.

Surprises await every turn when you wander the lush, quiet trails laced throughout Christiania. This tiny home, cleverly resembling Christiania’s flag right down to the yellow dots, contains a reference to the “Free Republic of Uzupis” (a neighborhood within Lithuania’s capital city, Vilnius).

Like Christiania, Uzupis is an independent republic within a large European capital city. It’s the European neighborhood most often compared to Christiania. Its atmosphere is quite bohemian and artsy, although, unlike Christiania, it still resembles a typical dense European neighborhood far more than Christiania ever will.


Exploring the community

Anyone who fails to venture past Pusher Street and actually explore Christiania itself is missing literally ALL of what makes Christiania one of the most special, loving, inclusive neighborhoods on Earth!

“Community gardens” are unnecessary and thus nonexistent in Christiania, where gardens are found everywhere, and everything belongs to the community.

First of all, it’s the most walkable neighborhood I’ve ever seen. Not only can you walk literally anywhere you’d like in Christiania, but you’ll never have to worry about encountering a car. The few private cars owned by residents are kept outside of Christiania’s borders. In fact, the “crate bike” was launched here in the 1980s. Featuring a spacious crate in the front and seen on all well-worn trails in the community, it’s now known as the “Christiania bike.”

The “Christiania bike” is seen throughout the community. It’s great (and quite fun) for hauling cargo, including human!

At one point as I wandered through some thick brush on one of the many beautiful trails crisscrossing throughout the community, I came into a sudden clearing and nearly ran into an older man who was happily sitting on his property, surrounded by lush vegetation. He settled in Christiania in 1977 and never left. We had a wonderful talk, and I couldn’t help noticing that his esteemed look and conduct would fit just as naturally in the philosophy department as Oxford philosophy department as it would in Christiania.

Despite Christiania’s extremely central location within Christianhavn, much of the community feels like the Shire. And no fences exist because property lines don’t really exist. I had a long talk with the wonderful owner of this house; he moved here in 1977.

I found Christiania to be an enormously successful social experiment. I greatly enjoyed seeing and talking to everyone I encountered in its lush setting, where property lines and fences are either invisible or nonexistent.

Typical peaceful, colorful walk through a neighborhood unlike any other on this planet.

Christiania likely has the modern world’s closest approximation to a peaceful anarchist community: it rejects perhaps the three most important things anarchists reject: hierarchy, property ownership and central rule. In Christiania, you are in control of your own life, as long as you follow a few very basic rules meant largely to keep peace.

There’s a beautiful elevated loop trail that surrounds Christiania and drops down both to canals and a lake, the latter of which contains a real beach and a great adult-sized playground.

All the residents I met embodied the spirit of expressing yourself freely, being responsible to the community, and living harmoniously with each other and with nature.

Even the cats are content, totally safe and unafraid. And yes, I walked right up to and pet this cat without fearing an admonition to “get off the lawn.”

It’s rare that there’s a vacancy in Christiania. But when it happens, outsiders apply to become residents at an area meeting. The community then chooses someone who would be an asset or fill a need. In the early years, builders were in demand, for example.

Kids of all ages play in the pocket parks found throughout Christiania. This one borders the lakeside beach. Rope-balancing outside while carrying a drink doesn’t violate any of Christiania’s nine laws.

Christiania’s greatest threats: money, drugs and gentrification

Not all is peace and carefree living, of course. Outside money is serious, ever-increasing threat to Christiania’s very existence, and there’s a dual threat of drug trading and gentrification. The big-money illicit drug trading may be under control for the moment, but there has always been an ebb and flow.

Residents even took the very unusual recent step of allowing police to install video surveillance equipment. And, again, visitors are strongly urged *not* to buy drugs within the community, because the cannabis market funds organized crime once it gets sufficiently large. Residents are even considering additional laws regarding cannabis itself, which would be a highly unusual step.

This is, at least for now, a very quiet, extremely inexpensive area toward the far back side of Christiania. But world-class restaurants and high-end shops are only 5 minutes away by bicycle.

Christiania’s other major existential threat is that its incredibly cheap “rent” (mortgage payments to the foundation), extremely artsy feel and convenient location makes the community a prime candidate for gentrification. In fact, Christiania’s once backwater location could not be more attractive than it is today.

There are currently *seven* bicycle bridges within and bordering Christiania

Fully *five* new bike/ped bridges were built within a *quarter mile* of Christiania’s borders in 2015 alone. Two more such bridges were completed in 2016, and yet another bicycle bridge will be built within half a mile of Christiania by 2018. This alone creates almost insurmountable gentrification pressure on any neighborhood.

Postcard-perfect Nyhavn (“New Harbor”) is now reachable from Christiania by bicycle in 5 minutes, thanks to the new Kissing Bridge.

But the pressure of big money pouring intensified most of all when the years-delayed “Kissing Bridge” finally opened in July 2016. The bridge is very short (600 feet long), but it completes a critical missing piece in Copenhagen’s cycling network. Technically called the Inner Harbour Bridge, it provides by far the fastest connection between Christiania and Nyhavn (“New Harbor”), the most colorful and famous place for tourists to congregate in all of Denmark.

It’s tough to squeeze another person into Nyhavn on summer evenings.

The Kissing Bridge also links Copenhagen’s most famous post card scene with the two formerly industrial islands whose value has skyrocketed faster than anywhere else in Denmark—and they both within a five-minute walk of Christiania.

Another view of Nyhavn, from which Christiania was fairly cut off until July 2016.

One of the islands is Papirøen (Paper Island), a former paper factory that has now become an “industrial chic” (which always means upscale) food market, art gallery and design offices. High-end development has also begun.

Paper Island is now home to a popular science museum, a huge indoor food market, great new trails, and much more. It’s also directly across from the relatively new waterside Copenhagen Opera House.
Even on a cloudy, cool summer day, Paper Island’s outdoor seating areas attract more than a few diners.

Directly across from Paper Island (and also served by the Kissing Bridge) is another small island that was (until 2016) home to Noma, which was named the world’s best restaurant in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014. The land is some of the most valuable in Denmark—and its sparkling new bicycle connections to Christiania, Nyhavn, Paper Island and other popular destinations only draws more interest and tourist traffic to Christiania.

Noma, named the world’s best restaurant in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014, was a literal stone’s throw outside of Christiania.

It wasn’t that long ago that Christiania was very much isolated from Copenhagen’s core; the islands separating the community from downtown were dominated by the ship-building factory that closed in 1986. But today more people visit Christiania than any other attraction in Copenhagen, save Tivoli Gardens. That’s right: more people visit Christiania than the Little Mermaid or even the famous shopping street Stroget.

Tourist traffic is increasing, but people mainly confine themselves to areas closest to Christiania’s entrance gate.

It would be an unbelievable tragedy to lose the Christiania I’ve seen and adore beyond words. I hope that the community can continue to operate indefinitely in a manner similar to how it has since 1971.