Copenhagen’s latest dispute challenges identity and existence of city’s green utopia

Residents of Christiania are concerned that government’s attempts to restore the area’s historical barracks will damage wildlife and nature.

Flag of Freetown Christiania hangs from a house.
Picture by Dina J. Salem

By Dina J. Salem & Gareth Axenderrie

COPENHAGEN, Denmark – In an old military barracks, just 2.5 kilometers east of the Danish Parliament, lies one of Copenhagen’s biggest havens of biodiversity – Christiania.

The semi-autonomous state, which describes itself as anarchist, was established in 1971. It has encountered frequent clashes with the Danish government as it has battled to establish a community free from state intervention.

In recent years, a number of violent incidents and an increase in police intervention related to the area’s cannabis markets has given it a notorious reputation. Many have questioned whether Christiania has lost its free and vibrant soul.

Tine Bjørn, a citizen of Christiania since 1994, works in the Freetown’s information office and helps at the area’s recycling facility.

“All the trouble and police you see in the media and on TV, that’s just a very small part of Christiania. Sure, people come here to buy and sell hash, but you have to realise just how small a part of the community that is,” she says.

Nature vs normalisation

Now, following increasing political pressure to introduce varied models of ownership and to restore the barracks, residents are concerned that the latest in a line of normalization attempts will damage the environment and put nature at risk.

Nature is our number one priority. We work hard to make the area clean and clear because Christiania is everybody’s. Nobody owns anything for themselves here, but they [the government] don’t care about that. They just see a problematic area,” Bjørn adds.

Despite being infamous for the so-called “Pusher Street” (a cannabis black market), the area has developed vast green spaces to become one of the city’s most biodiverse spaces.

According to the Danish Ornithological Association, Christiania currently harbors 112 bird species, as well as foxes, hedgehogs, butterflies and a vast array of plants.

Christiania has more than 800 citizens, many of whom have lived there for several generations. The small society functions through several departments that are designated with specific tasks.

The Christiania Nature Group, the body that is responsible for the preservation and development of the natural environment, is comprised of members of the community who volunteer their time to perform the designated task.

Christiania and the State’s restoration plans

A spokesperson from Bygningsstyrelsen – the government agency responsible for buildings in Copenhagen – was keen to point out that both the restoration of the Ramparts and the area’s nature are the responsibility of the Foundation of Freetown Christiania, in cooperation with the state.

The agreement between Christiana and the state regulates in details the maintenance and restoration of the Ramparts, including the buildings and considerations and respect of the nature.”

In June 2011, an agreement was reached between Christiana and the state regarding future ownership of the area. The agreement states that the Fund is responsible for the restoration and future operation and maintenance of the fortress facility.

However, Bjørn feels that a recent increase in pressure to restore the ramparts is simply the next step in a long line of efforts to normalise Christiania.

We are just a little sickness they [the government] don’t want in here,” she says.

Karsten Lauritzen, a Member of Parliament for  Danish party Venstre, told Roads and Kingdoms that it is a question of principle “whether a group of people should be allowed to occupy a large part of government property in central Copenhagen. There’s no question that what they’ve been doing is illegal.”

Bjørn explained that in the face of such close government scrutiny, residents have been forced to politicise, and doing so has been to the detriment of the community’s sense of freedom – a core principle of the Christiania society.

“We have had to adapt to political pressure from the Danish government. The bureaucracy is sucking the life out of Christiania. Our breathing is coming down to paperwork,” she says.

This article is written for a British audience and could be published on https://www.theguardian.com/uk