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Environmentally (Un)Conscious: The Inadvertent Eco-Village of Christiania

The freetown Christiania is largely known for its famed cannabis trade. However, there is so much more to this alternative community - the sustainable ways in which its residents live their lives have enabled it to achieve eco-village status without even intending to. The home of the infamous ‘Green Light District’ is a lot greener than you, and its residents, might expect!

The second most popular tourist attraction in the entirety of Copenhagen, freetown Christiania has been the source of much controversy since its establishment in the 1970s. Once a disused military base, the neighbourhood was created when a group of squatters decided to transform the abandoned area into a home. Founding residents proclaimed Christiania an autonomous community, operating under its own individual set of laws collectively decided upon by the group. A new flag was even created to represent the area’s individuality and separate it from the rest of the country! The alternative values of the freetown meant it quickly became a refuge for those who felt marginalised within the Danish capital. Despite many attempts by the Danish government to normalise Christiania and re-integrate it into the city, none of these have been successful - today, the freetown boasts a population of around 900 residents.

The entrance to freetown Christiania. Image Credit: Neptuul on Wikimedia Commons.

A small wooden sign to greet you at the entrance is all that indicates Christiania is separate from the rest of Copenhagen. There is a detectable shift in cultures and ideologies as you cross its boundary. The creativity of the freetown’s founders and current residents is wonderfully clear, with some form of art covering almost every surface. There are no cars in sight - the only noises to be heard are the chirping of birds, the excited buzz of tourists and the melodies of musicians. This change of pace is surprisingly refreshing compared to the never-ending rush of city life.

But how exactly has this controversial commune become ‘the green lungs of Copenhagen’? The ideals of Christiania’s founders have helped it to become intrinsically environmentally friendly. This community centred around collective decision-making and making room for all, no matter their background, have sought to live in harmony with nature from the onset. Rules and regulations are limited, but there are three core principles upon which the neighbourhood was founded: self-administration and responsibility, solidarity, and a balance with nature.

By building the neighbourhood from the ground up, the founders of Christiania have weaved sustainability into its very foundations. An initial requirement to reuse materials out of necessity has shaped the neighbourhood into one that prioritises these actions. Today, residents still aim to fix and repurpose things as opposed to buying new where possible. Even visitors can get involved: one of the first things you see as you enter the freetown is The Green Hall, a reuse centre where residents and tourists alike can donate and take items such as books, clothes and even furniture that others no longer need!

Both ‘mental and physical pollution’ are prohibited inside the boundaries of Christiania. This philosophy has played a significant role in the making of several decisions as the settlement has developed. Christiania has been completely car-free since its establishment, both to reduce environmental pollutants in the area and to maintain a relaxed pace to life there for the wellbeing of its residents. The famous “Christiania Bike”, a popular bike brand now used by many to get around Copenhagen, was initially produced by the freetown’s blacksmith. Biking and walking are the only transport options available to residents, with even running being banned to prevent any feelings of unrest within the neighbourhood!

A cyclist in winter riding a Christiania bike through the streets of Copenhagen. Image Credit: Mikael Colville-Andersen on Flickr.

Plant-based diets are rising in popularity in the freetown, so much so that it now boasts multiple vegan and vegetarian eateries. Morgenstedet, an organic food hall in the centre of Christiania, is extremely popular with tourists for its hearty vegetarian dishes. This and a number of other eateries in the area operate with the aim of providing people with nutritious, filling meals at a low cost. Most of Christiania’s community buildings are equipped with methods of generating renewable energy such as solar panels, and there are even plans to equip the neighbourhood with a national grid powered by energy from green sources.

An investigation into ways of life in the freetown found that many who live there do not feel their lives are especially eco-friendly. When asked about sustainability, one resident even remarked ‘We don’t have that here’! Christiania has almost accidentally become an eco-village, with its founders having no intention of establishing it as such. The core principles of Christiania have enabled it to operate sustainably for half a century without the majority of the world even realising.

A nature-based mural spanning the entirety of a house wall in Christiania. Image Credit: Tony Webster on Wikimedia Commons.

It was with these core values of respect for the environment in mind that an initiative was developed to ensure the neighbourhood’s long-term ecological viability. The ‘Green Plan’, first published in 1991, describes the aim of residents to develop their home whilst causing minimal disturbance and alteration to the natural landscape. These efforts have certainly paid off, with the eco-village currently housing a large area of natural, preserved wetland and over 100 species of migratory bird.

When Christiania was established over 50 years ago, many expected it to turn to ruin. This home to the forgotten-about members of society was regarded as a social experiment and left to see what would happen in a community governed by alternative values. Nobody expected it to thrive in the way it has done. Although it is not a perfect framework for environmental sustainability, there are many lessons we as urban citizens could learn from residents of the freetown. Ensuring a similar respect for the environment is upheld within our cities could be invaluable to both conservation efforts and sustainable development. Increased emphasis on reuse may help put a stop to overproduction and harmful ‘fast fashion’ industries. Perhaps above all else, we in wider society could learn a lot from the pace at which Christianites enjoy their lives - if more people were able to lead a relaxed, peaceful lifestyle in harmony with both each other and nature, the world may be a happier place.

About the author: Alex Powell is an Ecology and Conservation Biology student at the University of Sheffield, with particular interests in zoology, animal behaviour and climate change. He hopes to pursue a career in ecological research and volunteers with the RSPB in his spare time. You can find out more on his LinkedIn page.

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