Christiania: Space for Cycling Politics? Local Resistance in the ‘World’s Best Cycling City’ – Guest Post by Amanda K. Winter

Copenhagen has been in the spotlight for its green urban policies with numerous awards and titles for being among the world’s most sustainable and livable cities. An often cited reason for this is the culture of and infrastructure for cycling as a mode of transportation. In striving to become the ‘world’s best cycling city,’ the Danish capital continues to expand upon their cycling ‘superhighways’ (the City of Copenhagen’s term). Christianshavnruten, a cycle path proposed in 2008, has met ongoing community resistance from locals living nearby the proposed path. Why are residents of Christianshavn, and in particular, Christiania, a self-declared car-free zone, opposed to this cycle path? What does this opposition and resistance tell us about the plurality of urban sustainability projects?

Dyssebroen and the Christiania Flag

Christiania, without detailing too much of its background here, is a car-free, quasi-autonomous, anarchist, squatted settlement on former military barracks in one of Copenhagen’s now core districts, Christianshavn. Founded in 1971, Christiania utilizes consensus democracy for all decisions (no voting, simply debating), they do not have a mayor or police (violence is not tolerated nor are hard drugs). As squatters, they did not develop a long term sustainability plan, yet managed to be termed an ‘eco-village’ – of a particular, unintentional sort. An outsider’s first impression may be reminiscent of a village in a ‘developing’ country, with dirt paths and wood burning stoves. Their creative efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle such as using collected materials from demolitions in Copenhagen to build homes, is tied to low incomes just as much as an environmentalist stance. Life in Christiania is deliberately slow-paced. The pathways are uneven, and tourists and animals are around every corner near the Dyssebroen. This bridge connects the two segments of Christiania on either side of the canal and is a popular hang-out area when the sun is shining. During my research stay someone mentioned that the City wanted to put a cycle path through this squatted town; however the notion seemed so preposterous to me that I did not take it seriously, until I saw banners hanging around the Dyssebroen.



Banners Hung in Protest along the Proposed Cycle Path (Author, 2014):

Left photo: ‘Thanks but no thanks for the cycle route. Look out: quiet, slow, children, horses.’

Right photo: ‘There is just no space for municipal cycling politics’

The City’s proposal below shows how the path, open to Amager’s 150,000 residents, would cut through Christiania (yellow) and connect Christianshavn to the popular Nyhavn harbor area. The proposed bridge needed for this path, Inderhavnsbroen, would connect the red segments. Aside from the local resistance, Christianshavnruten and several proposed bridges in Copenhagen’s harbor have been delayed for years due to the bankruptcy of the construction company.

Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 3.42.00 PM
Proposal for Christianshavnsruten (City of Copenhagen)

Copenhagen is often ranked as one of the world’s best cycling cities, with 36% modal share cycling to work or school, and over 50% in the downtown area. In their 2011 cycling strategy, the City boasts about the quality and safety of their cycling lanes: “you can ride around most of the city with a cup of coffee on the handlebars.” However this does not seem to be the top concern for Christiania residents and the local council. A Christiania resident explained to me that “everyone knows it is a terrible idea to put the route through Christiania because it is not safe, but the City will sacrifice the safety of local residents in order to avoid cutting through military heritage sites in surrounding areas.” What is most important to local residents is the preservation of their space as calm and peaceful, a place where children and adults can play.

The City has argued that the path will provide a connection for Amager (the island south of Christianshavn) residents to downtown Copenhagen, increase the cycling modal share and help the city reach its goal of being the world’s first carbon neutral capital by 2025. Christiania has responded that it does not need a cycle path. The town has maintained a car-free atmosphere and most people get around by foot or bike (including the locally made Christiania cargo bike). Expressing concern for the safety of local residents, animals and tourists (often on group tours), they claim the path is unsuitable for use as a cycle superhighway with heavy traffic. The local Christianshavn council has aligned with Christiania residents on these safety issues and also the preservation of the landscape. While local residents argued that the project should invoke a formal environmental impact review, the City determined this would not be necessary. The response to the residents’ safety concerns is that the City worries more so for the safety of the cycle path construction workers, as they fear protests. Christiania and the local council have hosted walk-throughs of the congested area of the proposed path, and devised and presented alternative routes to the City. Nevertheless, the original plan remains.

A member of the local council had a similar reply when I asked about Christianshavnruten: “I have been very much occupied with the bicycle ‘road’ through Christianshavn and Christiania, especially because it is a totally ‘non-functional’ route, but forced through our part of Copenhagen by the politicians without listening to the experiences of the inhabitants. It is a pity, because most people here want to promote bicycling, but not in this way!” Clearly what is deemed to be a sustainable policy by the City is perceived as detrimental to those living in and around Christiania. This dilemma demonstrates how sustainability is situated and cannot be reduced to simply counting carbon. The issue further shows how seemingly naïve topics such as a cycle path are not without politics and struggles over space.

– Amanda K. Winter, PhD candidate at Central European University in Hungary


The author would like to thank the Central European University Budapest Foundation (CEUBF) and the Christiania Researcher in Residence (CRIR) project for their support with this research.

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