Christiania – a small community with big ideas
Amid all the incoherent 'big society' talk, consider Christiania, a democratic Danish community celebrating 40 years of autonomy
Christiania, the community created in the heart of Copenhagen, is celebrating its 40th birthday this weekend. There is much to celebrate and even more to be learned.
In 1971, the Danish defence ministry closed its huge 18th-century fortress and left it to rot. Locals first tore down the fences to create a playground for their kids and were then joined by squatters and alternative characters of every kind. They took over the place and founded Christiania; a democratic and autonomous free city that would make its own laws and raise its own taxes. The Social Democratic government of the time declared it a "social experiment" and allowed it to continue.
Since then, and after much travail, Christiania has grown to be a community of over 1,000 people. They have renovated the old buildings and built new and wondrously eclectic ones for themselves; established and run their own rubbish, recycling and sewage systems; maintained a system of common property, collective responsibility for dealing with crime and a politics of intense democratic discussion; kept cars out and pioneered the cargo bicycle; and become a key hub of the city's musical and cultural life.
It might not be everyone's idea of utopia but the informal waiting lists to join the community are very long. While some come and go, many are staying for the duration. As one resident put it to me, when reflecting on growing old in Christiania, "The people that I live with here are my pension." Christiania is now considered by most Copenhageners to be an essential part of the urban fabric and is among the city's biggest tourist attractions.
The celebrations of these remarkable achievements will be all the more intense because as recently as this spring many observers were predicting Christiania's imminent demise. The Danish rightwing coalition government appeared intent on forcing massive new conventional housing developments on the community, putting roads through this car-free zone and permanently closing down the open trade in marijuana that has flourished on the infamous Pusher Street (and which accounts in part for both the tourist trade and some locals' affections).
Then, over the summer, the government and Christiania cut a deal: no developments, no roads, and the chance for the community to buy the place at a sub-market rate while maintaining both their system of communal land ownership and a high degree of autonomy from the Danish state.
In itself this was a remarkable political victory, worthy of celebration and testament to the real pragmatism of Danish politics. But more than this we should be celebrating Christiana as a fragment of the alchemist's stone of urban and social policy; how can we transform our lives as atomised, alienated individuals into the pure gold of real functioning social capital and social networks of collective action and decision-making.
Christiania may be a one-off, the product of an unrepeatable combination of circumstances and opportunities. Even so, it has a lot to teach us. If you really want to emotionally engage and energise people – the raw materials out of which social solidarity is made – then give communities access to land, property and other assets before the developers get there. It is simply incredible what energy, skills and visions people can collaboratively mobilise when they have the chance to experiment with their communal and living space.
Once that's happened, have the courage to back off and let things happen. In some ways politicians and government agencies have become such a neurotically overactive presence in policy-making; Christiana was born of a judicious amount of benign indifference and tolerant disapproval. The same goes for the private sector too. Christiania's complex networks of social enterprise, collective service provision, self-help and exchange have had the space to evolve and grow independently and keep money, energy and work local.
The incoherent conversation we are currently having about the "big society" would be enriched by thinking about small societies as well. They needn't look or feel like Christiana, bohemia is entirely optional; but if the 40th birthday party is true to form it would be no bad thing of one or two did.