Christiania: The Last Freetown on Earth
“You are now leaving the European Union,” claims a sign as you enter the free zone of Christiania, Denmark, and while not exactly true, the town is gradually emancipating itself from its country, from the EU and from neoliberal politics, and its status as an autonomous civil entity is becoming validated.
In 1971, 84 acres of abandoned military base in the centre of Copenhagen were taken over. The colonisers: the homeless looking for shelter, artists for somewhere to paint and parents wanting a space for their children to play. They broke into the base and began reclaiming the land for themselves. Walls were transformed into artworks, dusty warehouses into homes and the word about an emerging freetown spread through Denmark.
Soon, people began moving into the base permanently, and as the population of what was formerly known as Christianshavn grew, so too did its ideas. Based on old anarchist values of no authority, communal ownership and collectivism, Christiania developed into a space where those unable to ignore the rise of authoritative power, the systematic reduction of individual freedoms, expanding wealth inequality and the pervasion of political corruption could express themselves freely and regain control of their environment.
To solidify these ideals, in 1971, Christiania’s few residents conceived this mission statement:
The objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the wellbeing of the entire community. Our society is to be economically self-sustaining and, as such, our aspiration is to be steadfast in our conviction that psychological and physical destitution can be averted.
Today, Christiania’s population has swelled to over 1000 permanent residents, attempting to live harmoniously in an almost surreal city, where every wall is a colourful mural, where warehouses, huts and houses are based on design not function – some twisting into trees, others constructed completely out of recycled glass. The canal is lined with house boats straight out of Willy Wonka. It is a city where imagination, rather than revenue and efficiency, propels innovation.
Christiania’s business district borders on self-sufficiency, and is a maze of trippy and eccentric cafés, grocery shops, bars and a building supply store. It has a museum, several art galleries, a music arena, a skate park, a recycling centre and a recording studio (which is inside a shipping container), all communally created, owned and run.
The town also encourages the healthy consumption of food and alcohol. Organic, high-quality vegetables and beer are commonplace, and most restaurants focus their menus on nourishing vegetarian or vegan meals. And keeping within Christiania’s framework of peaceful, healthy living, meditation and yoga are abundant and practised by most residents.
In Christiania, there are no taxes. You cannot own land or even a car there. If you have land it is temporary; if you own a car it is shared. They have their own currency, the Løn, and their own flag, three yellow dots on a red background, which is said to represent either the three ‘i’s in Christiania or the three ‘o’s in love, love, love.
Christianians have even condensed their judicial system into nine rules which, when compared to the ever expanding legal web being spun in the West, are relatively simple. The rules are requested to be followed by residents and tourists alike, although there is no governing body to enforce them. They span from no weapons, no violence, no bulletproof clothing and no running (as it might be seen as a police raid) to no hard drugs.
While hard drugs are banned, though still somewhat prevalent, hash is a central resource for the community. They have almost 40 24-hour cannabis shops that stock over 30 varieties of hashish, which attract bud lovers from Denmark and all over Europe.
As Christiania technically belongs to the European Union, marijuana remains illegal; however, the infrequent police raids have created an open market, where punishment is unlikely. When inside the town’s borders, you also have the freedom to smoke wherever you want – which means most cafes, bars and shops are infused with the earthy scent of the green plant.
Understandably, the development of Christiania was not without its struggles. On the surface, the commune almost seems utopic and its place within the current global political framework untenable, and for 30 years the Danish government, while more relaxed than other Western countries, attempted to regulate, restrict and ultimately shut down the community.
At its most rapacious, Christiania faced increasing drug raids and police patrols (20 combat police officers with dogs up to six times a day), negative media attention and political pressure. As tensions amassed, the stake of Christinia as both a valuable plot of land and as a potentially subversive community acting outside of governmental control was publically recognised, and its opposition grew.
In 2012, after four decades of conflict, the residents were forced to leave for a month and make a deal with the Danish government. They eventually settled on buying the 84 acres for 13 million dollars. Which, as Copenhagen is one of the world’s most expensive and desired cities, is actually a bargain.
To the residents of Christiania however, of whom over 40 per cent were on some kind of government support, gathering 13 million dollars of surplus cash was impossible, which inevitably lead to the acquisition of loans, and thus the pervasion of capitalism into their community.
While the commune was able to continue collectivising their land, which was bought communally through “social shares”, interest fees have now almost doubled since their inception into Christiania and are forcing some residents to leave.
Many in Christiania believe the path out of this debt, to repurify their ideologies by regaining ownership of the land and demonetising the commune, is through the legalisation of cannabis. Christiania is already a central hub for marijuana, so if legalised, it could become a legitimised business, and the profits earned injected into the loans, giving the residents the ability to buy back their land from the banks. And while the Copenhagen City Council is encouraging the legislative reform, Denmark’s justice ministry has repeatedly denied it.
Christiania’s original statues are at risk, though with over one million visitors a year, its home in Denmark is permanent. The Dane’s are proud of Christiania. It has become a symbol of values that have no place in a neoliberal world, long denied as idealistic or fanciful. Values of subversiveness and rebellion, creativity and tolerance, the fair treatment of the poor, ecological sustainability and racial inclusion, began in the commune and continue to grow there.
Christiania remains an actualised concentration of the benevolent aspects of humankind, and if the town can continue to be an example of their potential as a societal framework, its ideas may spread further than its colourful gates.