Christiania afterthoughts

I still have lots of notes to write up from my residency in Christiania – in particular from my walk with Peder Agger before I start working on the map. It’s been a week since I returned to South London, and I’m still so grateful for my time there because it helped me really reconnect to my core values. Living in the city and in particular, working in the city proper deeply distorted my perspective. In 2012, I had realised the depth of this distortion, so we, my husband and cat, moved onto a boat on the London Waterways to live in a way that was separate from the destructive mechanisms of the high net value consumer economy, without having to leave.

We had to ration our water, had limited electricity, no internet, small gas ring, porta potty. So we were, probably for the first time, forced to confront our withdrawals and deposits in and out of the landscape like water and goods, and rubbish and our fecal matter!

Like the Christianians, we cycled everywhere, mainly to avoid the horrific tube crushes and cost. We had to deal with our own recycling, lived modestly out of choice, and our decision to live in such a way, also meant that we had to coexist with unsavoury sorts, like speedboat maniac drug dealers on the rivers.

I took my current job as a software tester as a temporary means to support my studies and art work, and now, a few months after finishing my MA, I’m still there. I work across a number of sites, but the one that I dislike the most is Holborn.

Holborn caters to the legal and banking elite of London, and there are hundreds of coffee places and lunch places that fuel that stomachs of the analysts, barristers, bankers. Everything is on demand here, food, sex, love, and since it is so readily available, it is equally disposable.

The pressures of working in the city are incredible. The high salaries come at a high cost, long tense complex  days with ever increasing work loads but concrete deadlines. I’ve watched dozens of my coworkers, skip breakfast, skip lunch, as though it were a badge of honour.  They are locked into the grind by a debt contract, a mortgage, or the motivation to provide a world class lifestyle or education. They are not happy, or at least 98% of the people that I know personally aren’t.

People would argue that the presence of these high earning individuals drive the service economy, and they are right. I feel sorry every time I see a city Barista between the hours of 7 and 9 am. It is like being a 19th century factory worker,  working at a relentless pace, which carries the risk of severe burns and physical exhaustion. My husband works as a chef, I’ve seen it first hand.

Even the homeless people in Christiania, seemed to me, to be more at ease psychologically that the average city worker. I often watched them from the Green Room on the benches outside of the grocery store, their free and drunken bonhomie. I am not trying to trivialize or deny their lived experiences. Having spoken with the people at the Health Clinic, the homeless people have incredibly deprived and complex health and psychological issues to deal with as a result of their homelessness and past experiences. (I also have worked with homeless people when I was a frontline health promoter for the NHS in West London.)

However, for a low level city worker like myself working as a temp, the constant stress levels are unsustainable and make for a pitiful existence. Struggling to live in a tiny room, spending hours each day standing on crowded transport, constantly having more work dumped onto your desk, but with no more time to complete it, knowing that if you refuse that you will no longer be able to afford your tiny room. Having no savings at the end of the month, because you have masses of student debt.

Having no life because you have a headache when you get back from work and you can’t really go anywhere because you live in a boring and dangerous suburb and going out means spending more time on public transport. Just sitting in your little room doing the best that you can, trying not to give up and stay positive, waiting until you are tired enough to go to sleep and repeat the process. After a few months of being in the office, I started to feel like a constant passenger in my life, a numbness crept in.

Some would say that these are choices, made because of a lack of determination or imagination. But, I find that deeply insulting. Most people are not working in their dream careers, they are simply trying to survive from month to month and they are trying to do better.

What I’m trying to get at, is the lack of autonomy as a city drone that I’ve encountered. How the city and technology creates a passive consumption, which in turn, creates a passive and nullified existence.

But, I also understand that most people would argue that what I see as a lack of self expression of self determination,  is also convenience and stability.

Cities are vampires of natural and human resources. I enrolled in further masters studies in Urban and Environmental planning because I deeply believe that by creating sustainable streets, we can create sustainable cities that do not rob people of their autonomy, or completely destroy the local landscapes that they are situated in.

I’m going to do another residency in the North and then I’m leaving London for good this time so that I can have a work/life balance which allows me time to work equally on my studies and art works.







Lessons learned – low numbers for the workshop

I tried to run the community mapping workshop on Wednesday, but had a very poor turnout. There are a few factors that affected turnout:

Researcher and outsider fatigue: The Christianian’s have been very generous with their time with me in general, but they are quite wary and bored with outsiders in general.

The newspaper: I missed the deadline for the community newspaper (by an hour or so) and this is is main way of communicating!

The weather: It was an unusually hot day, I saw a couple of people whom I hoped would attend sitting outside having a relaxing beer in the sun. (It was October, and people were able to sunbathe, I get it!)

Flier Fatigue: I made posters, I put them up in all of the strategic spots, like the post office, by the bathhouse, shop, everyday spots, but I’ll make more next time!

I’ve tried to put another ad in the paper on time, hopefully it will make it this time!


Conversation with Kim Rasmussen

Kim Rasmussen is a herbalist who works at the community health clinic in Christiania. He lived in Christiania previously and currently lives off site. I had planned on talking with him about the health provision inside of Christiania, but our conversation soon turned to the purpose of the residency and what I hope/d to achieve.

He expressed support for the Gardening group and their work fighting against invasive species as part of the requirements of normalisation. Like Jorgen, he had legitimate and proven concerns about soil quality and we discussed the high levels contamination. We discussed the dual nature of Pusher St and the Contamination.

Both Pusher St and the contamination of the soil, despite being real dangers to the Christianian’s and their way of life, have also prevented development on the site. The levels of Cadmium and other heavy metal contamination from the site’s past as a military barracks, have acted as a major deterrent for developers who wanted to build homes, but won’t because of the criminal and environmental factors.

We talked about the small but fertile plant bed in the clinic’s garden, and I talked about doing some soil sampling in the future to assess the levels of contamination in the garden.

I explained that I’m not a scientist, but an artist researcher who is interested in promoting and creating citizen science projects and innovative ways of science communication, but he was interested in the idea of having some idea of the toxicity because he occasionally eats the ripened figs from the clinic garden.


Summary of interview with Jorgen and Line from Free Nature Christiania.

Christiania was founded shortly after a band of disenfranchised activists squatted in a disused Army Barracks in what was then, the periphery of Copenhagen, bordering Christianhaven, a working class neighbourhood in 1971.

It is in some senses, a government sanctioned social experiment in alternative living.

Here are some of the founding principles of Christiania;

Objective Goals of Christiania
To build up a self-ruled society,
where every single individual can freely develop themselves
under responsibility for the community.
That this society shall rest economically in itself,
and the common strife must still be to go out and show
that psychological and physical pollution can be prevented.
13/11 – 1971 (Source

Today, the city of Copenhagen actively promotes Christiania as a tourist attraction, with  a tour starts every thirty minutes every day of the week. Tourism is a mixed blessing with day trippers arriving from all over the world: German tourists, Architecture buffs, city hopping pot tourists providing a substantial income for the residents. The site is also a popular cycle thoroughfare with local commuters since additional cycle paths and access points have been added.

Monday is the Sunday of Christiania, most of the businesses are closed after a busy weekend, it is when the common meetings that govern the activities of Christiania occur. The site and community is divided into small self governing geographical segments. Overall, this works as a governing structure, but it does mean that it is difficult to organise anything that requires consensus from all of the areas. The municipal garden group and the Free Nature group have often experienced tension because of their differences in perspective, although this has improved over the past few years with better communication between the two groups.

Christiania now sits on incredibly valuable land, and the government wishes to transform the area bordering the fortifications into various heritage grade mixed use developments. I talked with Jorgen about the visions that he, and a few other Christianian’s set out in the Green Plan document in 1991. Jorgen is part of what I like to call Christianian’s Old Guard, by that I mean, one of the original inhabitants who have lived on the site since it’s inception. He is in his late Sixties but is like most of the Old Guard, incredibly active and youthful.

He led us on a bicycle/walk tour of the site and showed us how they had worked to transform their green plan into a reality. Floating reed and gravel sewage filtration systems for the floating homes upstream on the river bank which ensure that sewage from the houses are adequately filtered before entering the water system, composting loos, solar panels, collective recycling, all things that were considered to be laughable or too radical when the Green Plan was authored in the 1990’s. Looking at the Green Plan on the commune’s website, a great deal of the points outlined are now seen widely accepted as sensible responsible alternatives.

The Nature group runs a number of public engagement activities, mostly focused with younger age groups, like a hedgehog awareness day, or a more general collective action day. I asked Jorgen about his opinions about the younger people’s perspective on biodiversity and the ecology of the area, and it seems like there is tension between the old guard and some of the younger inhabitants with regards to the future vision of Christiania. Jorgen said that ‘they don’t care whether there is one type of bird, or a hundred types, they are scared of the dark, and they want new houses.’

I tried to arrange an interview with the gardening group to hear their perspective, but I’ve been unsuccessful so far. I’ve arranged a community mapping session tomorrow and I’m hoping that some younger people who are ecologically minded will turn up so that they can offer an counter perspective.