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Wonderful Copenhagen

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Copenhagen’s now legitimate Freetown sets a radical precedent for the Big Society, says Rory Olcayto

Architects love Copenhagen because it typifies a certain kind of civility that often seems lacking in the UK. Its citizens love to promenade up and down the wide cobbled streets, cycle along the harbour’s edge, and wander freely through its public buildings and parks.

The townscape is rich without being decorative, and yet there are landmark icons too – Arne Jacobsen’s Radisson Hotel for example, and of this year’s eight European RIBA Award winners, three were in Copenhagen. Yet there is a sense that the city fathers are more concerned with harmonising the city as a whole rather than exalting one part over another with show-stopping design.

Too few architects however rave about Christiania (aka Freetown). The self-proclaimed, autonomous, 34-hectare neighbourhood occupies a large chunk of the city’s Dutch-inspired district (canals and terraced elevations proliferate). It began as a squat in 1971, when a small group of hippies occupied the abandoned military buildings located there. Since 1989 it has had its own laws and is run by a residents’ council.

The townscape is characterised by self-built eco-homes, partly refurbished warehouses with cafés and music venues, as well as stalls and shacks selling food, jewellery, knick-knacks and, to the consternation of the conservative Danish government, cannabis. It has parkland trails and canalside walks, wooded glades and rustic charm, right in the heart of the city: it is utterly unique, and extremely busy – tourists and Danes of all ages love it. There is nothing like it anywhere else in Europe.

Yet since 2004, Christiania has been under siege, as politics in Denmark swung to the right. In recent months there was a real sense that it might be abandoned, such was the pressure from city officials eager to develop the vast tracts of land and buildings, and clear away the perceived undesirables. So news of a momentous agreement on Monday this week, when Christiania’s residents agreed to buy outright the land they live on, should be welcomed.

The government’s £14.3 million deal guarantees Christiania’s right to occupy the land and develop it in ways residents alone see fit. ‘The agreement enables it to continue as an alternative society where Christiania itself can renovate and develop the freestate,’ spokesman Thomas E told the Copenhagen Post.

The deal values the price for the area and buildings at £9.1 million. An additional £4.7 million covers the cost of building new properties on the land. The settlement also enjoys widespread political support, despite the decision to value Christiania’s properties at £416 per square metre, well below market price for Christianshavn.

Copenhagen’s wisdom regarding Christiania is to show that development doesn’t have to mean ‘luxury flats’ or ‘mixed-use with added public realm’; that chasing the property buck doesn’t have to be the transformative tool. Cities are in fact more liveable if they can accommodate a variety of communities, including edgy, seemingly anarchic, un-shiny ones like ‘Freetown’. This is the Big Society, Danish style and the best possible riposte to the growing Costa-fication of Europe’s urban centres.

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