Getting off at the Christianshavn metro stop in Copenhagen, you’ll see a crowd of well-dressed Danes, adorned with designer bags and shoes, rushing through the streets – a sight typical for Denmark’s capital.
But just 500 meters away from the station, you’ll see a wall covered in graffiti, acting as a barrier of sorts between the rest of Denmark and Christiana: an autonomous stretch of 85 acres that lives under rules different from the rest of the country. The “Christianites,” as they refer to themselves, live in a unique community that serves as a refuge from mainstream Danish society and culture.
Image Credit: Huda Alawa.
Walking through the narrow streets of Christiana, you can feel that rejection in even the most basic aspects of life: Unlike the typically rushed lifestyles of Danes, residents and visitors are relaxed and leisurely walk around town. Here, friends and strangers greet each other on the streets – something you won’t find on other streets in Denmark.
There are two paths upon entering the area: one to Pusher Street – the infamous street where anybody can buy marijuana (illegal in the rest of Denmark) – and one that leads to the inner-residential area, where eccentric graffiti covers the walls of houses.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. A view of "Pusher Street."
Christiana offers a window into what life looks like under self-governance, and without private property. Currently, upwards of 750 people live in the community, and thousands of tourists come every year to experience its unique culture.
A safe haven for anarchists
Formerly a walled military area belonging to the Danish government, Christiana first came to existence when squatters took over the abandoned plot of land in 1969, in an effort to convert it into a playground and communal park.
For the next two years, there was an active tug-of-war between the squatters and the government, until finally, in 1971, the wall was torn down once and for all. It was then that journalist Jacob Lundvigsen published an article discussing the different uses for the now-open army barracks; one such idea was to convert it into affordable housing in the otherwise-expensive Copenhagen. Through his inspiration, self-deemed anarchists came to Christiania to live their lives.
Image Credit: Getty Images. Residents of Christiana in 1976.
Despite continuous attempts to reclaim Christiania, the Danish government was unsuccessful. As a result, the Danish Parliament decided to do what any government does best: instill rules. From this, the Christiania Law was birthed in 1989, a law in which the Danish government controlled Christiania and restricted the construction of unapproved buildings.
Eventually, in 1971, the 700 original squatters living in the community finally won the right to self-determination, and the area came to be known as “Freetown Christiana.”
Life under its own rules
With its own flag and currency, Christiana is an entirely different world from the rest of Denmark. It’s self-governing, apart from a few rules, known locally as Christiana’s Common Law: no fighting, no weapons, no stolen goods, no hard drugs.
Image Credit: Huda Alawa.
The central values are clear: living in a society where you are in complete control of your life.
It is governed by consensus democracy, which means that decisions are made based on the common agreement of all residents. Consensus is central to how Christiana governs itself, and it offers many different forums for residents to be involved in the community’s decision making.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Maybe most relevant to all residents is the Common Meeting, where all residents of Christiana come together to discuss a variety of issues. It is here that the annual budget of Christiania may be negotiated or disputes may be resolved. The community’s democracy is ever-evolving, and all residents work together to protect the communities basic values.
A world without private property
Christianites also reject the concept of individual ownership – perhaps a reaction to Denmark’s capitalistic society. It’s also a value that has created unique challenges for the community.
At one point, this meant streets without cars, but after 41 years of existence, the community has had to find ways to evolve. Private property is rare today – with only 190 privately-owned cars in the community, according to the Danish Building & Property Agency. Those who do own cars are barred from keeping them within Christiana itself.
Image Credit: Huda Alawa.
In 2012, the community’s values were tested by the Danish government, when the property was offered for sale to the community for a deeply discounted price. It would mean that Christiana would finally be self-owned – but it would also mean violating their own principles around owning property.
The purchase also paved the way for the Christiana Law to be overturned in 2013, moving it from the supervision of state to being under a city municipality. The government, however, has reassured the group that they can continue their lives undisturbed.
Even though the purchase meant that they would no longer be squatters, some members of the community felt that the land purchase was forced upon them. After all, this was not as much of an option as it was a forced decision: If Christiania did not choose to purchase the land they occupied, the Danish government would go through with constructing roads and building property in the area.
Image Credit: Getty Images. Residents of Christiana walk along a street in 1976.
Tanja Fox, who was four when her family brought her to live in the eccentric community, told Time that they “never wanted to own anything.”
No longer would there be constant intervention by the government; now, Christiania would be given the chance to self-govern as they had so adamantly fought to be.
A proud community
"En by i byen: Christiania for dig og mig. – A city in the city: Christiania for you and me."
That's Christiana's motto, and no matter what changes it sees, the community exists to make sure that no resident is alone; the greater community is always there for help.
One thing is clear: Christianites are proud of their heritage and will continue to fight to be the self-governed Freetown Christiania.