Leave the door on the latch for community ownership

HOME 5 Blog 5 Leave the door on the latch for community ownership
Ed Whitelaw, Head of Enterprise and Regeneration at Real Ideas, writes about a recent trip to Danish neighbourhood Christiania and community power.
26 Oct, 2022
Ed Whitelaw

Ed Whitelaw

Head of Enterprise and Regeneration, Real Ideas

I am a little disappointed in myself to have to admit this.

It wasn’t until a few months before setting off on a Churchill Fellowship to Denmark – exploring the space between community business and participation, power and wider democratic reform – that a friend asked me “you’re going to Christiania right?”.

I had overlooked it in my itinerary.

No problem. I managed to get on their website, sent off a few emails to their embassy (yes, they have an embassy) and setup a tour and interview with long-term Christiania resident, Kirsten.

Ok, so if you’re not familiar with Christiania – Copenhagen’s semi-autonomous 84-acre enclave at the heart of the city – Tom Smith’s Open Democracy article from 2020 is still very relevant and a good place to start. Certainly, from the perspective of my interest, and looking through the lens of community business, ownership and power, I can add some further detail.

I had been to Christiana on previous occasion, but that was before the latest major reconciliation moment in 2012, a key milestone in the long process of Christiana and the Danish state learning to live with each other. It was at this point, following mounting tensions that “Christianites” formed a legal entity, a foundation (Community Land Trust-like structure), and with loan finance, a testament to their economic power, bought the legal freehold of the entire waterfront site.

Incidentally, for any of us that work with heritage assets, as we do at Real Ideas, as a former 19th century military barracks and fortification, Christiania contained multiple historic listed buildings, many of which had subsequently been significantly modified since the initial squatting of the site in the 1970s. This was dealt with very sensibly in 2012, the whole site was just re-listed by the municipality, as is. Plainly many of the new builds created over the years were architecturally unique, highly sustainable and frankly stunning.

Economically, for a population the size of a village (900 adults including 250 children) Christiania “council” has an annual budget of 40,000,000 DKK (£4.6m), equivalent to a small city. This is derived from the enclave’s substantial visitor economy and founding communal ownership ethos, no homes or business premise are privately owned, all paying rent into the “communal pot”. From which, through a democratic and community accountable process, Christiania like any council commissions all the services you expect in any town – waste, energy, education, health, strategic infrastructure, etc., and environmental improvements.

Christiania’s destination economy runs on culture. It is the recognisable artistic and creative heart of Copenhagen, the place to go for music, performance, visual arts and more. It is home to a wealth of independent community businesses, many based within the creative industries and many (such as Christiania Bikes) of national, if not international, renown. As such it the city’s second largest tourist attraction, with an estimated visitor footfall of between one and two million a year, and if rent alone accounts for 40m DKK annually, I can only imagine the turnover must be at least three times that, and the wider economic benefit to the city even greater still.

If we are able to get past our minor prejudices, and the major obstacles of traditional, more extractive, corporate regeneration thinking, there are many lessons to take from Christiania: high levels of employment, participation, personal agency and democratic control; positive health and wellbeing outcomes; high environmental and public realm standards; and vast economic benefits.

What was most remarkable to me was how a community of 900 people have managed to negotiate, toe-to-toe, eye-to-eye and pretty uncompromisingly with an international city council for over 50 years, and everyone seems to have benefitted. The source of Christiania’s power is rooted in its diversity and divergence, its independent, democratic and social ownership and its subsequent economic might. It has not always done what the state wanted – far from it – but that is why it works, and that’s kind of the point.

If you are looking for a standout example of the benefits of community wealth building, community ownership, community business, and real community power, you be hard pressed to do better than Christiania.

As a final suggestion, if you happen to be a coastal town (mentioning no names) in need of renewal, you’d be wise to learn a thing or two from Christiania. When you’re considering your next waterfront regeneration project, instead if giving tens of millions of pounds of public money to a corporate developer to churn out the same carbon copy of mediocre chain restaurants you find in too many towns, maybe keep your money, maybe just leave the door on the latch, turn half a blind eye, and let (human) nature run its course.

Ed Whitelaw is Head of Enterprise and Regeneration at Real Ideas, he leads on Plymouth’s Empowering Places Programme with Power to Change and is a current Churchill Fellow.

Community ownership and power will be one of the three central themes at this year’s The State of Us conference, 18th November, Plymouth.