Degrowth and Christiania: on Copenhagen’s collective living experiment

The community post office, Freetown Christiania. Image: Helen Jarvis/author provided.

Since the first squatters arrived in 1971, the self-proclaimed Freetown of Christiania has inspired radical thinking and social experimentation. Affectionately described as “loser’s paradise”, the squat became a haven for young people unable to access affordable housing in Copenhagen, and activist pioneers from all over the world.

In July 2012, Christiania struck a deal with the Danish state to “normalise” its status. The change was fraught: after 40 years of illegal occupation, a community of activists fiercely opposed to the idea of private property had to establish a foundation and purchase the entire site, with the exception of some features, which were heritage listed.

The deal enabled Christiania to buy itself free of speculation, as a common resource for everybody and nobody. Today, Christiania receives hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, making it the most popular tourist destination in Copenhagen after Tivoli Gardens and the statue of The Little Mermaid.

Growth and the good life

It’s considered normal for cities and states to measure success in terms of economic growth. But critics point to the treadmill of addictive consumption, property speculation, long working hours, debt, waste, one-upmanship, fast food and short-lifespan technologies that unending growth sets in motion. Opposing this trend, communities such as Christiania pursue “degrowth” by prioritising human relations over market relations; maximising sharing, togetherness, social justice and the health of the planet.

The pressures to conform with mainstream society can be divisive for the 800 or so residents managing their lives communally in Christiania. Big decisions are made through a decentralised democratic structure: 14 area meetings and a “common meeting” must reach consensus between artists, activists and cannabis dealers on Pusher Street.

A self-built home. Image: seier+seier/Flickr/creative commons.

In 2012, a minority of residents wanted to be allowed to buy and sell homes that they had built or renovated for themselves. The final deal with the Danish state prevented this. Residents have the right to occupy, but not to buy or sell their homes or businesses. The whimsical variety of domestic architecture that has evolved makes Christiania visibly distinct from surrounding up-market neighbourhoods.

The residents’ resistance

I know from my brief time living in Christiania as researcher in residence in 2010 that degrowth values were practised there long before this term became associated with a broad movement of alternative, ethical and ecological actions.

Stage made from compressed cardboard for ‘Dancing at the Trasher’, 2010. Image: Helen Jarvis.

From the outset, it was the Christiania way to renovate and adapt rather than to tear down existing buildings, and to build with reclaimed materials at minimum costs. This also made it possible to get by on a low income, with reduced hours in paid employment, giving residents a way to resist the earn-to-spend treadmill.

Christiania is known as a place where nothing goes to waste. Numerous craft skills and social enterprises thrive on a culture of making do and mending. Elsewhere in Copenhagen similar local livelihoods fail to flourish under profit maximising conditions. The community has won prizes for comprehensive garbage collection and recycling. The collectively run Green Hall trades in salvaged and repurposed building materials.

Six years on

This summer, Christiania hosts a festival of degrowth, to show that it is ethical and green to resist the burden of conspicuous consumption. The festival coincides with an exhibition of archives on the history of the place, which forms part of the sixth International Degrowth Conference taking place just across the Öresund Bridge in Malmö, Sweden.

Social investment with the Christiania people’s share. Image: Helen Jarvis.

One example of grassroots degrowth since 2012 is the 12.8m Danish Kroner (£1.5m) raised from a social model of investment: the “People’s Christiania Share”. The scale of this crowdfunding (shares are symbolic and have no financial value) outstrips previous experiments with alternative currency. These include payment of a Christiania wage for community jobs – for example, working in the bakery, gardens, laundry, waste collection or machine hall – which functions much like the degrowth policy of basic income, where everyone is paid a minimum stipend.

By comparison, police estimate the cannabis market on Pusher Street to be worth 635m Danish Kroner (£74m) annually. While social models of investment benefit Christiania, profits from the hash market drive growth and speculation elsewhere. Recognising this conflict, residents chose in May this year to shut down Pusher Street temporarily. Younger residents are driving this shift from individual freedom (to profit from criminal activity) to mutual responsibility (for future generations and the planet). This coincides with broad based support for the recent crackdown on intimidating cannabis markets in Christiania.

The festival of degrowth will introduce visitors to a “village of alternatives”. My research shows that Christiania is an inspirational space to think differently about conventional standards of living, precisely because of the absence of private property. A collective shift in mindset can be achieved here, which would not be possible in neighbourhoods of conventional single family homes.


Making the magic

Yet puzzles remain, when it comes to practising sustainable degrowth at scale. One reason why Christiania’s car-free landscape is so “magical” is that residents live at remarkably low density: at first glance, they seem to live in a public park.

While this site might otherwise be expected to accommodate several thousand people in high density social housing, the legal safeguards of the 2012 deal endow Christiania exceptional experimental status. This allows residents to take risks with living creatively on a low income, enjoying close friendships in place of material consumption.

There are lessons here for places where degrowth is dismissed as impossibly Utopian, limited to fringe green debates and reduced goals of “sufficient living standards”. In the UK, state sponsored private property and ownership impose smaller private homes, rather than collective ownership of private and shared spaces.

The Conversation

But from Christiania, we learn that smaller private spaces only benefit sustainable degrowth when combined with collective ownership and generous community space for shared use: people come together to share skills and collectively manage scarce resources to reduce consumption. The hope is that as young green activists gather in Christiania this summer, thousands of visitors will look favourably upon collective living as the new normal.

Helen Jarvis, Reader in Social Geography, Newcastle University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.