In this article, Kate Griffiths reflects on her recent trip to Copenhagen. Before she went what she was most looking forward to was a visit to Christiania and her husband even joked about leaving her there to soak up the atmosphere. What she experienced was very different to what she imagined. That experience led to this article – a comparison of two different communities with a view to understanding what makes them so different.
Christiania is in its fifth decade. Despite visits by 10,000 tourists a day in the height of summer, it has struggled to survive. It came into being in the 1970s when Danes like many Europeans were scarred by footage of the Vietnam war and had dreams of living in a conflict-free Utopia. They eventually found their way into an old military barracks in the middle of the city, on a plot of land. It had toilets, habitable buildings and electricity. Berries grew in the gardens, and fish swam in the lakes and canals separating this area from the rest of Copenhagen. For the squatters, it seemed like paradise. And before long, the roots of an autonomous “free town” called Christiania (after the name of pre-1925 Oslo, which had been home to prominent anti-establishment figures) started to take hold. The state tolerated Christiania for 40 years but barely and its survival was only secured last year when it managed to meet the Danish government’s demands to pay 51.8 million Kroner to buy around 7 of the 32 hectares it occupies. The government also extracted a promise that Christiania would maintain the properties on the rest of the land that belongs to the state. Christiania residents secured most of the money through a 30 year loan from Realkredit Danmark.
The freetown attracts tourists because it is marketed as a hippie commune with an alternative life style. The emphasis seems to be on the Green light zone where hash is openly bought and sold in many different ways; the air is so thick with smoke that if you hung out there long enough you could high on the fumes. As this article’s photo shows there are some beautifully painted parts; however much of the art work is covered in graffiti and there is a definite sense of neglect and poverty.
Another self-governing community is the Findhorn Foundation. It is now over 50 years old and yet grows from strength to strength. Its beginnings are similar to those of Christiania in that six people who were jobless and living on a caravan park started it. That’s where the similarity ends. From quite early on, the founders of Findhorn created a stir of wonder. They managed to grow miraculous veg like 40-pound cabbages in poor, sandy soil. By the 1970s the community had grown significantly and a number of members got together and designed and built Universal Hall, a feat of architecture.
Why is one group so much more successful than the other? There are two things that stand out about Findhorn. Its founders Peter and Eileen Caddy and Dorothy McLean meditated daily and had a set of spiritual practices. Also from very early on, the community wanted to be known as a place of learning and set up its own university. Furthermore, members of the community became particularly fascinated in group dynamics and what makes groups work. This led to an exploration of whole systems thinking which is the bedrock of their consultancy service.
So whilst both communities are self-governing and based on anarchic principles, there is a stark contrast in how they have evolved over the last fifty years. They provide us with insights into how communities might function when we are living in the new paradigm world. In essence Findhorn represents an example of what a thriving community can look like whilst Christiania symbolises one that it is in survival mode. The major difference that I see is that the founders of Findhorn were masters in mindfulness techniques that enabled them to still their minds so they could follow their intuition. Recent research published by Harvard Business Review shows that after eight 45 minute sessions of Mindfulness, participants have increased focus and improved performance. And it is one of the reasons that I have started to teach a regular Mindfulness class at Harmony, Hitchin.
Kate Griffiths is a qualified coach, speaker, community leader and writer, who is fascinated by the power of conversation. She teaches business owners, leaders and teams how to communicate effectively to build stronger relationships and thereby improve the possibilities for innovation and collaboration.
Kate is also the Community Relations Director of the 7 Graces Project, a thriving community and emerging social enterprise. The aim of the 7 Graces Project will be to provide an educational alternative and business incubator for a new generation of ethical, community-focused businesses.