From Romance
— to Sustainability

In 1971, a group of young activists occupied a vacant barracks area in Copenhagen. Their vision was to build an alternative society based on sustainability, community and consensus democracy. After forty years of tumult with the police and the government, Christiania has been working towards seceding from the Kingdom of Denmark since 2011. But what has happened to make them come so close to becoming a legal state? And can the community of Christiania cooperate with the government on sustainability work? I spoke to State Archivist Ole Lykke, hoping to understand the connection between community, sustainability, drugs and democracy in Christiania, Copenhagen.

The first time I met Ole Lykke, was at an activist and hippie festival called Karlsøya, near Tromsø, in 2010. We were both there representing Christiania – I was there as a musician, and he was there as a speaker. Ole is educated as a teacher of history and Danish, and works as State Archivist in Christiania, a so-called freetown (an autonomous district) in Copenhagen, Denmark. It all started in 1971, when they occupied an area of vacated military buildings in the central Christianshavn quarter. Since occupying state buildings was and is illegal, the activists had placed themselves outside of Danish law – hence calling their new home Freetown Christiania. 

There would be several years of political struggle and conflict with the government before the inhabitants were given permission to use the area. In 2011, the final agreement with the state was formed, which involved the Christianites officially buying central parts of the area through a fund, for 115 million DKK. The rest of the area, they are renting from the Danish state, which has increased Christiania’s yearly expenses from 18 to 43 million DKK in the last five years. In other to manage this, their fund sells so-called “people’s stocks” to the Danish people, as well as to the foreign tourists that visit the area. With the help and support of regular people, the fund has a chance of making sure that Christiania can remain co-owned by the community, or really by people across the world. Anyone can move to Christiania if they like. However, you are expected to be involved in the community in order to gain access to housing, because it is almost impossible to get permits to build new housing. The inhabitants have built their own buildings, and so have a number of architects. But since 2011 the state has put strong limitations on potential new buildings. Christiania has always supported collectivity, and with their autonomous status they are developing the Freetown as an alternative society based on collective ownership and collective structures. But is the community united in this process? And is Christiania developing in a sustainable direction? 

Christiania has always been home to two very different cultures: the activists and the drug pushers. While the activists maintain their idealism and values, the pushers are not known for focusing on recycling or frugality. One of the consequences of the pushers being part of the community, is that two groups with two very different economic philosophies have to coexist. This conflict has shaped the history of Christiania, both in terms of community and sustainability. 

Ole Lykke, how did you become involved in Christiania? 

“At the end of the 70’s, I had lived in Christianshavn for a couple years. Sometimes I would buy pot in Christiania, but other than that, I didn’t know much about the place. At one point I participated in a campaign that the theater group Solvognen from Christiania organized. This campaign was called Dyrehæren (the Animal Army), and I was one of 60 people who dressed up as animals and protested against Copenhagen’s pollution. At the time, I was active in NOAH, an environmental organization that was celebrating 10 years of activity in 1979. After the Animal Army experience, I asked NOAH if we could make a Noah’s Ark-themed march. I could borrow all the animal costumes we needed from Solvognen. That was when I first experienced the resourcefulness of Christiania. I needed a trailer for a truck to transport the ark, but where can you get one of those? I asked around in Christiania, and after just one day, someone let me know where I could borrow one for free. I found the boat the same way. I learned how generous Christiania is as a society, when it comes to recycling, repurposing and finding things you need. You know where things are, and you borrow them from each other. You know each other. There’s a village-like feeling right in the middle of the city, which I was very attracted to. 

How would you describe the community of Christiania? 

That word, ‘community’, was prominent at the time that I moved to Christiania. You just referred to this thing called ‘The community’. The structure of Christiania in the 70’s was very loose. There was a negotiation group, but it was quite independent. The group consisted of Christianites who were good at negotiating and arguing, and it was led by an odd character named Per Løvetand. He was involved from the beginning until 1978, and had connections in politics and architecture. After the very first year, he was responsible for publishing a report on Christiania. He was a visionary, and he took Christiania seriously as a societal experiment. Christiania did not actually elect representatives, but people sort of rallied around Per Løvetand. 

So in Christiania people operated under the term ‘Community’, but was this community all of the inhabitants of Christiania? Not really. The community was the more aware and active people. But everyone had the opportunity to contribute to the process of building Christiania, fixing up buildings, attending meetings, making decisions etc. 

In 1977-78, Christiania took the state to court over broken promises. The politicians had promised to organize an architectural competition that would contribute to shaping Christiania. Instead, the politicians decided to “clean” the area. The case went to the Danish supreme court, and the judgement was passed on February 8, 1978. The court ruled that the promise had not been binding, but also that this was a political question and not a legal one. A few days later, the parliament gave Christiania a three-year deadline to come up with a plan for the area, because there was none at this time. 

After the court case, many of the active members of the community left Christiania. From 1975 on, the problems with hard drugs had increased. We were told that from the summer of ’78 to the summer of ’79, ten people died in Christiania, where four of five of them where people who lived there and four or five were people who just visited a lot. They died of overdoses and effects from long-term heroin abuse. It was awful. Out of a population of six or seven hundred, about 150 were in some way involved with heroin. The background for this situation was that heroin production was transferred from the French to the American mafia between 1970 and ’75. When the Americans had flooded the market at home, they started exporting cheap heroin to Europe. Christiania became a popular place to buy and sell heroin. So the activists and hippies living there spent a lot of their time taking care of the drug abusers. This was not exactly what they had pictured for the place. They had imagined building a new society with alternative philosophies regarding food production, sustainability and democracy. I remember how a good old communist friend of mine put it: “300 revolutionaries are looking after 300 losers.” As a result, many of them moved out. Still, a decent active group remained at Christiania. 

During the summer of ’78, the heroin problem started to be addressed by a group from Copenhagen’s police force called The Red Rockets. This was a part of the force that could operate differently and more broadly, but it was tripped up by the police administration. Some Christianites revealed the names of the heroin backers, which led to the police arresting 30 pot pushers and confiscating 200 grams of pot. This made it difficult to do anything about the heroin problem in Christiania, because if you cooperated with the police, you were a traitor. 

In 1979, closed meetings were held in the Factory, where the Community got together to do something about the heroin problem. It was impossible to agree on whether or not to allow heroin in Christiania, because every drug user would say they obviously should. So only a select group from Christiania attended the meetings, where they decided on what they called Junkblokaden (the junk blockade). A social welfare office called Herfra og Videre (‘From here on out’) was established in cooperation with rehab institutions in Copenhagen. The blockade lasted for 40 days, where a couple hundred Christianites blocked the entrances to the area and patrolled the streets. 

Did you do the blockade without involvement from the police? 

We had to. The police tried to fight the initiative by arguing that it was vigilantism. Some also thought the drug abusers belonged in Christiania and should just stay there. So the blockade was a cooperation between the activists and the more aware pot pushers, who had started a legalization campaign in 1977. It had the same purpose as the blockade, which was to separate pot from hard drugs. The pot pushers formed the Walkie Talkie Group, who patrolled Christiania and made sure heroin wasn’t sold anywhere. They were good at that, because they knew the area and the network of pushers. 

The blockade was successful. The heroin users were given the choice to leave Christiania or seek treatment, and over 60 people chose to seek treatment. Some former Christianites took them on, and the rehab institutions open their doors to them. If they were clean after six months, they could come back to Christiania. 40 of them managed to get clean, but because of a risk of relapse, only two of them wanted to move back to Christiania. 

I was asked to document the blockade in the form of photography. After a week, I had moved in and formed a group that shared a housing unit. What I experienced then, was the magic of the community of Christiania: “The incredible force of 200 people dropping everything for 40 days in order to achieve a common goal, really moved me.” At the time, I was a part-time photographer, but my main gig was teaching Danish and history. I was happy with that, but this was something bigger. 

Christiania was part of a large western alternative movement during the 70’s, out of which grew a number of groups in Denmark, such as feminist and queer groups, anti-war groups and hippie movements. Christiania, in a way, came out of all of that, and became a cultural center for music, theater and alternative lifestyles throughout the decade. 1978 was a defining year, which could be said to mark the end of the era that started in ’68. Not only did people move out of Christiania, but the political band Røde Mor (Red Mother) was dissolved, and many other initiatives ended their activity. When I moved into Christiania in 1979, it was a Christiania that was much more introverted than it used to be. “After the successful heroin blockade, Christianites shelved their hippieness and exchanged it for clog boots and overalls with tools hanging out of every pocket.” On the 10 year anniversary of Christiania, September 26 1981, something happens which has become a symbol of the changes in the community for me. Christiania has always been good at organizing parades with music and colorful costumes. But instead of marching through the city and being visible, Christianites stay within a small radius of Christiania now. We called it a love circle, but really we were closing ourselves off. 

In 1981, the three-year deadline passed. The social-democratic government gives an architect firm the assignment of coming up with a plan for Christiania. Our response to that is forming the Contact Group, which consists of two elected representatives from each area – there were 10 or 11 areas at the time, now there are 14. The Contact Group is Christiania’s face to the world. There is a huge difference between this and Per Løvetand’s Community, which was not elected. Now, everything is democratically run, and all the group’s meetings are open to the public. The group negotiates on our behalf – and it still does today. Negotiations lead to a resolution from the parliament in 1982, which says that Christiania can go on indefinitely. The only condition is that Christiania has to go through a compliance process, which means that Christiania has to move towards complying with Danish law. The politicians take on the pubs first, and demand that there be at least one licensee at each place that serves alcohol. The blockade had shown that the collective structures were strong, particularly against the threat of drug problems, and so most of the places that served food were given similar collective structures. One of the most important elements was keeping closed on Mondays to hold Monday Meetings. “Monday Meetings are where decisions are made. Everyone there has the same right to speak and to influence.” Obviously some have worked there longer, have more experience and more to bring to the table, but the principle is that everyone is equal. That is still how it is done today. 

How does the consensus democracy work in practice? For instance, how are decisions made at the general meeting? 

The general meeting was golden. Open to the public, everyone there being equal – that was the ideal of the youth revolt, and it was a part of Christiania from the very start. But the general meeting was criticized early on for things moving slowly, and for the structure being too loose because nothing can be decided until everyone agrees. That was part of the reason for the faction forming around Per Løvetand, with some of the more determined and active Christianites at the time. The ideal of the general meeting was always hard to live up to, and it still is. In practice, that means we have to work around it sometimes. It means that we are very careful to have prepared our best arguments. The day someone comes and criticizes you and claims a process was not democratic, you just have to have it drilled in, that everyone needs to know what is going on. About a third of the adults in Christiania attend every meeting that they should attend. Some go to meetings only when they think it’s important or pertains to themselves. About 40% never attend meetings. Typically, these have people who don’t have the energy or time, or haven’t been raised to be involved in that way, or have never learned to express themselves in front of a crowd. We try very carefully not to step on that group’s toes. You need to respect them and not make changes too quickly. “Just the fact that we have never thrown anyone out of Christiania, or set criteria for who can move in, says a lot about the openness and generosity that Christiania represents. There is room for everyone here.” 

What sustainable initiatives are there at Christiania? 

For many years, when I spoke about Christiania, I said it was not particularly organic or sustainable. Christiania is romantic. In the 70’s, we were very concerned with recycling. That involved companies taking their waste materials from building projects to Christiania, and we burnt them in oil barrels. Instead of it ending at a dump, we created all this carbon emission and pollution by burning it. It was all very romantic, but not very sustainable. It’s only been a year since I gave up my wood burning stove, which had been my main source of heating for 25 years. Six years ago, we set up central heating in the area where I live. I was the only one who didn’t connect to it, so when there was a foul smell, the neighbors knew where it came from! I thought wood burning was awesome, but then I had to get a hold of myself, and now I am really happy with my radiators. The central heating is as good as carbon neutral, and provides heating and hot water to seven housing units. Now we are going to set up another installation that the rest of the houses in my area can connect to. This has been a process in all of Christiania since 2000. The Ark of Peace, for instance, where 80 people live, has central heating, which has taken the place of coal and oil. We call it “neighborly heat”. In the beginning there were some issues, so we called it “neighborly defeat”. But when it first started to work, those who had been skeptical found that it was much easier to adjust the temperature, and that it was less expensive. Then things really got going. Lots more areas started getting new heating. Neighborly heat is an example of a move from romance to sustainability here in Christiania. 

Some Christianites claim that we invented the whole recycling thing. But a lot of what we talked about in the 70’s wasn’t actually rooted in reality. It wasn’t until the 90’s that we got our own garbage truck and started sorting our waste. And it wasn’t until 2003 that we set up our own recycling plant. A few years later, we created the container system, which is what we use in Christiania today, where we sort batteries, plastic, hard plastic, glass, metals and general waste. At the same time, people start keeping compost bins at home. So it’s really over past ten or fifteen years that our ideals from the 70’s have become a reality, and Christiania has really become a role model when it comes to recycling. 

Something we are very interested in these days, are solar panels. In 1985, we were offered a big wooden hall from Nordisk Kabel & Tråd in Frederiksberg, which had shut down. It was disassembled and then reassembled in Christiania, under the name Maskinhallen (The Machine Hall). Another example of recycling! Then five or six years ago, we were going to renovate the Machine Hall, and then it was discovered that one side of the roof faced south, which would be perfect for a new kind of solar panel with lots of little holes in it, to let the light in. That way, the building would not only have electricity, but also natural light from the sun. The surrounding buildings were also supplied with electricity from these solar panels. It looked great and was a great success. 

Our next goal is the Green Hall. If you cover the south side of the roof with solar panels, you can provide electricity for a third of Christiania. But we can’t. It’s a heritage building. I can’t see why we wouldn’t be allowed to do this. The building would look ten times better with a roof of solar panels than it does as it is, with patches of roofing paper everywhere. It’s great that someone is making sure no idiot can just build a casino on the most beautiful beach on the west coast of Denmark, but if there is nothing to lose… One of our goals in Christiania is to preserve things as best we can. That’s why I sometimes want to just say “What the hell, let’s just do it”, and then face the music later. Because we have all the good arguments here, and the ministries only have these rigid rules to cling to. I sometimes miss that will to take a risk here in Christiania today. That feeling that when we are right about something, we do it. I guess I’m kind of an old-school Christianite like that. 

What about the municipality? Can you cooperate with them on sustainable initiatives? 

The municipality of Copenhagen, which is very proud of supposedly being very environmentally friendly, should be right there with us. These days we are discussing a potential partnership with them. It seemed like a promising idea at first, because we could learn from each other’s ways of doing things. We’ve been in this dialog for about a year, but it turns out the municipality has some inflexible rules as well. For instance, the municipality had set aside about 4 million DKK for energy improvements. So we applied for funding from that to build our central heating systems. We would pay 70% ourselves, and the municipality would pay 30%, but only of the work that we would do indoors, setting up the radiators. All the outdoor stuff we had to pay for ourselves. In Christiania, we don’t have the 25% tax that the rest of Denmark has to deal with, and besides, most of the work is done on a volunteer basis, and most of the equipment is bought used, like the radiators. When it came down to it though, the subsidy didn’t matter. We could do it cheaper ourselves, but the municipality could not adapt to that. It was their way with their support, or our way without it. 

We have also rejected funding for infrastructure. The municipality won’t be paving our roads, because that would be ten times more expensive than if we did it ourselves. Our own building firm lays asphalt sometimes, but right now we are letting some holes be, because they make some convenient speed bumps for the cycling tourists. 

Another example of these rigid rules, is that the municipality can only invest in renovations of old buildings, and not improvements made to them. So when we want to put in new windows in the Arc of Peace, we want to put in double panes for better insulation. But they can’t fund that, because it is considered an improvement. The conclusion has to be that even in the process of developing Christiania from the romantic and idealistic to actually becoming sustainable and cooperating with the government, we still come into conflicts with regulations and those who administer them, even if we should be on the same page about our goals. 

Where does Christiania stand on sustainable food production? 

Sustainability in food production is hard for us, because you can’t grow anything here. The soil is so polluted from when the area was used by the military and weapons were tested here. The shops Indkøberen and Grøntsagen have contracts with Svanholm and some other farming coops. At the restaurant Morgenstedetabout 96% of the foods are organic. Other than that, I would say that sustainable food is a personal matter in Christiania. Some people get their food delivered from Fødevarefællesskabet or Aarstidernewhich are popular in Copenhagen as well, but that is on an individual level. We have discussed assigning the responsibility for purchasing to a dedicated group, but it has never really caught on. 

What about cars and repairs workshops? 

We have talked about organizing a car sharing system, since we have about the same number of cars per person here as in Copenhagen. We have gotten used to buying old cars for cheap, which is a bit of a mess. But money talks, you know. The initiatives for using electric cars in Denmark were retracted, so not enough has been done there. As for workshops, we really only have one for bicycles. Kvindesmæden can also repair things. But we could do more in that area as well. I read about a workshop in the US where they will repair anything, especially electronics, which is something people typically don’t want to do themselves. I would really like to see a place like that here. I don’t think we are any better than the rest of the population when it comes to buying new electronics when something breaks. It also has to do with it being more expensive to repair things than to buy new things, unfortunately. 

Are there any other sustainable initiatives you would like to see in Christiania? 

We have a “put and take” booth, where you can leave or take used clothes. As someone wrote in an ad in Christiania’s newspaper Ugespejlet“Don’t be a flake, just put and take.” But I think we should create more jobs by starting a real second-hand shop, where clothes are laundered and repaired, so they can be passed on to someone who will appreciate them. 

What do you think about the sustainable Christiania of the future? 

In the process of creating sustainable solutions and taking it from an individual level to a societal level, there is a lot left to do. The good thing is that we are not forgetting our ideals here in Christiania, although we might discover that they are becoming kind of lofty. We can still make improvements, but as I have said, it is difficult with all the governmental hurdles. We are the most surveilled part of Denmark today. We started as a self-proclaimed autonomous district outside of Danish law, and now we are so compliant that it is very difficult to make any changes. The community has also become sort of divided on the question of whether or not to pay all the fines from the municipality and the state, like when we won’t move a compost pile or whatever it may be. On the other hand, it has only been a year since the Community got together and cleaned up Pusher Street after a shooting between gangs and policemen. Just like during the heroin blockade in the 70’s and the evictions in the 80’s, Christiania was united against the gangs and forced them out of Christiania’s pot market. That kind of work strengthens our unity and gives us hope for the future. 


Words by Christina Liljeroth

Photography by Ole Lykke