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.
In fact, few visitors even bother to go into the heart of the neighborhood, which is a verdant, peaceful oasis that makes ALL other urban neighborhoods on Earth feel like the concrete- and car-dominated places that they are.
The place is also known as Freetown Christiania, Freetown and “the town” (the last moniker referred to only by locals). Its “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.
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. The community is literally at the bullseye of Copenhagen’s resurgence of industrial properties.
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.
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.The once ubiquitous “No Photos” signs on Pusher Street are now painted over. I have no photos of Pusher Street, as it was strictly forbidden when I visited in 2015.
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 whatever took place inside.
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.
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 a police officer in 2016. Police shootings in Denmark are extremely rare; the last officer killed by a criminal in Denmark was in 1995. So, this incident was widely publicized throughout the country.
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. Severely limiting outsiders’ drug money also keeps out the corporate influence, which had been steadily increasing.
A near-perfect democracy–totally counter to lawlessness
This brings up the extreme misconception about the “lawless” nature of Christiania. Once again, nothing could be further from the truth.
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:
- 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.
Christiania even has an official flag. 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 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.
The biggest annual meeting is the Common Meeting, where all Christiania residents 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.
Christiania’s lovely countercultural 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”).
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.”
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 community is connected to the municipal water and energy grid, but residents employ (and constantly experiment with) some of the most innovative systems in what is already a highly environmentally conscious city.
The origin of “Christian” in these names“
“Christian” refers to Christianhavn’s founder, King Christian IV, a Copenhagen native and the longest running monarch in Danish history (1588-1648). Christianhavn is the small fortified merchant town (now an inner borough) he founded.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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 at Oxford as it would in Christiania.
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.
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.
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.
It’s rare that there’s a vacancy in Christiania. But when it happens, outsiders apply, at an area meeting, to become residents. The community then chooses someone who would be an asset or fill a need. In the early years, builders were in demand, for example.
Christiania’s greatest threats: money, drugs and gentrification
Not all is peace and carefree living, of course. Outside money is a 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 recently 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.
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.
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.
But the pressure of big money 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 Scandinavia.
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 both islands are within a five-minute walk of Christiania.
One of the islands is Papirøen (Paper Island), a former paper factory that has now become an “industrial chic” (translation: upscale) food market, art gallery and design offices. High-end development has overtaken every square inch of developable space.
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 now some of Denmark’s most valuable, and the many sparkling new bicycle connections to Christiania, Nyhavn, Paper Island and other popular destinations are putting Christiania on an increasingly well-worn tourist trail.
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 Scandinavia’s busiest shopping street.
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.
Bonus sections! 🙂
It feels sad and wrong to end my post about this wondrous community on such a dire note. So, I added two more sections. Plus, it’s a great excuse to include even more pictures. 🙂
I’ll start with a question:
What do ALL of the following places have in common?
- The historic centers of nearly every European city
- Mackinac Island
- London’s Trafalgar Square
- Rue Royal (after noon) and Jackson Square in New Orleans
- The endless fascinating corridors of Seattle’s Pike Place Market
- 16th St Mall – the only street visited by 100% of Denver’s tourists
- Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square
- Every piazza on Earth
- Turkey’s Grand Bazaar
- Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market
- Other world-famous markets found in Morocco, Egypt, etc.
- All national parks
- Vancouver’s Seawall, the world’s longest downtown loop trail
- Large parts of most college campuses
- The impossibly beautiful “main street” canals of Giethoorn
- Famous trails such as El Camino de Santiago
- And finally–literally ALL of Christiania
You’ve obviously guessed it by now. In fact, the *only* trait shared by ALL great places on Earth is that they are car-free. They might differ dramatically in architectural age and style, high or low density, etc. But the one thing that all great *urban* areas have in common is that they are full of PEOPLE rather than cars.
Christiania’s dramatic backdrop: Church of Our Savior
And finally…It’s almost impossible to write such a thorough post about Christiania without mentioning (and showing dramatic pictures of) the giant historic church that is a constant beautiful backdrop to the community.
During the one brief stretch of clear skies I experienced in Copenhagen, I biked as quickly as I could to the church and raced up the stairs to the 300-foot-high giant gold ball at the top.
They looked like scary, exposed and exciting stairs to climb–and they absolutely were!!