Copenhagen was once a vibrating harbour city, and its harbour areas were the place to go if one was up for stories and adventures. Those times are over. Most of the yawls and yachts just rock gently in the waves and winds without ever leaving its parking spots.
Behind the famous free state of Christiania, in the middle of Copenhagen, there lies a relatively unknown urban experiment, Fredens Havn, the Peace Harbour, which aims to break with this trend. Fredens Havn is a maritime community with a vibrating harbour life, integrated in the urban nature.
The experiment consists of approximately 30 boats, anchored up in clusters. Those clusters are the different “neighbourhoods” of the harbour, and each has its very own character. The amount of inhabitants swings with the seasons from around 20 people in the winter to up to 50 sailors in the summer. The project uses also some of the shore and land next to the harbour for bonfires, permaculture gardening and communal cooking.
The early days
Every community starts with one person. In the case of Fredens Havn it was Esben Banke, who came sailing into the area in 2008. He just went personally bankrupt and was on the outlook for a new mission in life. With those fresh eyes he noticed how the water birds were building their nests out of plastic trash. He also observed a swan who was about to suffocate itself while trying to eat a piece of styrofoam. He was shocked by the sight and decided to anchor up and cleanup the waste floating in the water.
After a short time he realised two things: Firstly, how the cleanup mission and the close contact with the urban nature brought his inner balance back, which he had lost in the aftermath of his bankruptcy. And secondly, that no matter how much he cleaned up, more waste kept coming from the city.
This second observation made him construct a floating cross out of old wooden planks, which he anchored up parallel to the stream, so that the waste floating back and forth was stopped in its movement. Now it was very easy to take a morning walk out on the blanks and pickup the waste which gathered along the floating planks.
It didn’t take long till the water birds discovered the new structure. As the planks were floating just on water level, it was easy for them to jump on top of them and enjoy a sun bath. Esben had soon his first new neighbours: a swan couple, which decided to claim the planks as their royal residency.
Initially the swans approached Esben begging for bread, as they were used to do with other humans they met on the waterside. But Esben had observed the water birds carefully and he knew that there was enough natural food in the area. So he strictly refrained from feeding his new neighbours. In consequence the birds calmed down and started to live side by side with him, allowing unusual close contact.
Esben observed also that his floating construction was breaking the waves from the tourist boats, which made it much easier for the water birds to build their floating nests successfully. Before the nests had often tipped over and the eggs were lost. Now the bird life started to bloom in the area.
But the water birds weren’t the only ones who noticed Esben’s wondrous life in tune with the elements. Some of the students of the creative schools on the other side of the water paid him one day a visit and they realised that their creativity was flowing much freer out here in the urban nature, than in the white classrooms. So the first one dared to get a boat and anchored up next to Esben and shortly after there was already a little community. It didn’t really have a name at that point of time, but everyone felt the peace with the urban nature, each other and themselves, so it felt very natural to call the experiment the Peace Harbour, Fredens Havn.
In the greyzone
But the peace got soon disturbed. The community is surrounded by some of the most expensive office buildings and apartments of the city and the neighbours were concerned about the newcomers. From outside it was hard to see that the simple and free lifestyle was centered around the cleanup mission and around relearning how humans can coexist with the urban nature. Rumors came up that the peace harbours inhabitants would defecate into the water and it was of course hard to explain the contrary. But in fact all community members were already at that time, and still are, very aware that spoiling the water they use daily for washing and cooking would be a stupid idea. Nevertheless the neighbours filed a complaint to the city of Copenhagen, which started a long bureaucratic struggle.
In the first round the inhabitants of Fredens Havn formed an association and applied for permission to keep on running the experiment, but that proposal was rejected. During that process it became clear that the area is actually not under the authority of the city departments, as it is part of a former military area and therefore the owner of the waters is the Danish state.
This started the second round, where it now was the Danish coast directorate leading the case. Fastly the inhabitants of Fredens Havn realised that as the area is part of state-owned Danish nature, the old Danish “Everyman’s Right”, Allemandsretten, could be applied to their project. According to that law everyman is allowed to anchor up in front of the Danish coast, as long as one’s vessel is under permanent surveillance and it gets moved to another place within a certain time span. Referring to that law, as well as the important function the community performs to protect the bird and water life, among them the mute swan which is protected under European Nature protection law under the class A, Fredens Havn existed for several years in the political grey zone.
Finally in September 2017 the police closed the case against Fredens Havn, which heralded a new era of possibilities.
A city with an edge. A city for everyone. A city on the water.
It seems surprising that Fredens Havn experienced so much headwind from the authorities during the past years, especially when reading through Copenhagen’s policy documents from the past years. Three of the main goals, seems to be especially aligned with Fredens Havns vision:
Firstly, Copenhagen wants to be a city for everybody. While many other cities around the world try in the recent years to attract as much capital and creative workforce as possible, Copenhagen formulates the goal that there should be space for a diversity of lifestyles, income levels, ethnicities, etc. The inhabitants of Fredens Havn have admittedly a very different lifestyle than mainstream society. For example in the summer the bonfire in the garden is the main gathering place and storytelling and acoustic music is at the center of attention. Or instead of having a bathroom each, they use the closeby Christiania bathhouse where washing and sauna gets as celebrated as back in the days in Rome.
A second goal of the city of Copenhagen is to be a city with an “edge”, which means that people should get surprised by their city. Weird, funny, new things should stir up the everyday madness. Fredens Havn could be described as a very “edgy” place. Benches built from driftwood, a garden formed like a ship, interesting strangers around a bonfire which are always up to meet a passers by.
At the same time one of the challenges that Fredens Havn faces is that it attracts also a lot of “edgy” people. At one point a man lived in the harbour, who bought old, leaking wooden ships and anchored them in the harbour. He figured out that there was a lack of accessible living space in Copenhagen, so he started to borrow and rent the badly maintained boats, mostly to people who didn’t know how to maintain a boat. Soon after several of those boats had sunken. The inhabitants of Fredens Havn still didn’t manage to clean up the whole mess he left behind.
A third goal the city of Copenhagen has worked on a lot during the past years, is to make its waterside much more accessible and recreational. Fredens Havn has made many steps in the same direction and experiments with building styles, where the flora and fauna gets a part of the meeting places along the waterside. There is for sure potential for more knowledge exchange.
An exciting future ahead
Now that the political case around Fredens Havn got closed, there is renewed energy and many dreams unfolding. The main mission is of course to continue the cleanup of the area.
But there is also plans to expand the permaculture garden to a forest garden, develop maritime gardens with seaweeds and mussels, start a regular people’s kitchen and the chicken house stands almost ready to get inhabited in the spring.
Number one priority is though to understand our own story better and get better to tell it; both over digital media, signs on the road, but most of all around the bonfire, together with the neighbours which we haven’t met yet.