An entrance to Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, Source: Unsplash

Copenhagen’s Christiania quarter to shed squatter label after historic loan deal with government

Copenhagen’s Christiania quarter to shed squatter label after historic loan deal with government

51 years after it sprang into existence, the district, famous for its grassroots democracy, will add affordable housing development to its tenets

Yesterday, the Danish Ministry of the Interior and Housing signed an important agreement with representatives of Freetown Christiania regarding the provision of a government loan so that residents can become owners of the community land. That is an important landmark in the history of the consensus-based district, which started as a hippy commune back in 1971.

In return, the community has agreed to allow the development of 15,000 sq metres of new affordable housing on the territory of Christiania. This will bring in a new type of professionals into the district and thus create a mixed type of settlement in line with the urban plan of the municipality.

Freetown Christiania is a consensus-based community

Freetown Christiania as the district is known has a long and checkered history – so much so that it has become one of Denmark’s most popular tourist attractions. It’s a prime example of the youth social movements in Europe of the 1970s and 1980s, which led to the occupation of abandoned private and public areas (the so-called “squatting”).

Located on the site of what used to be former military barracks on the north shore of Amager and near central Copenhagen, the neighbourhood has straddled an interesting balance between a free-wheeling commune based on grassroots democratic principles of freedom of occupation and expression and a drug den where the sell of cannabis has been somewhat tolerated by the authorities. Sometimes, though, the latter has also led to incidents, such as the 2016 shooting and wounding of two police officers.

In 1989, the Danish Parliament passed the Christiania Law, which recognized the right of the residents to live in the often vernacular type of houses they had built. The land under them, however, remained mostly public, meaning that the authorities could still have the last word and order eviction.

Christiania has a population of about 850 residents (of whom 150 children), who pay a “user fee” rather than rent. The money is collected into a common fund, which is used for a variety of things, such as organizing events or the maintenance of lighting. All residents have the right (and even the duty) to participate in the communal board whether they take collective decisions regarding their district.

Some feel that this will be a loss of communal sovereignty

This summer, the municipal government of Copenhagen decided that it was finally time to shake things up considerably and made an offer to the communal board to buy the land, or to tear down some of the buildings that might be considered structurally unsound (or at least to invest in their upgrade).

As is usually the case, it came down to a clash between high ideals and pragmatic reality that calls for funding. The national government offered to provide a mortgage loan of 67 million kroner (about 9 million euros) knowing that no bank would agree to provide credit to the community. That way, the residents would be able to finally purchase the land under their feet and become free in the legal-economic sense of the word.

In return, though, they would have to also accept that their neighbourhood would grow, change and become more vibrant and pluralist with the planned construction of affordable housing units. The latter could bring in a new profile of middle-class professionals, such as nurses, teachers and social workers and thus diversify the local economy based on artisanal workshops and illicit cannabis trade.

Not everyone was on board with the deal, though. And the decision was not easy to make following a lengthy communal debate on Sunday. According to CPH Post, a local rep described the government offer as “take it or leave it” and that the residents had “their arms tied behind their backs”.

In the end, it was decided to go for it. “We say yes because we want to take a social responsibility in Copenhagen and in Denmark in relation to being able to build affordable housing and to be able to create communities for people who want to live and be part of the Christiania community,” residents’ spokesperson Mette Prague told TV2.

The new housing units are expected to be ready to live in by 2031.

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