IPM Research: Normalising jurisdictional heterotopias through place branding

Normalising jurisdictional heterotopias through place branding: The cases of Christiania and Metelkova

by Nikos Ntounis* and Jenny Kanellopoulou**

Whereas a utopia refers to an idealised, but probably non-existent, ‘perfect’ place or society, and a dystopia as the opposite, a bad place or society in collapse, the concept of a heterotopia, as discussed by French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault, refers to a place or society that is different, or other, a place that has many layers of meaning, but also a place or society that offers some sort of escape from authoritarianism or repression.

In this article Nikos Ntounis and Evgenia (Jenny) Kanellopoulou consider both legal and political issues associated with place branding through their research into ‘jurisdictional heterotopias’, and how these places can become normalised through place branding associations, with such normalisation leading to not only their mainstream acceptance, but also to ‘the potential nullification of the liberties their communities advocate’.

The places in which they conextualise their research are Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Metelkova, in Ljubljana, Slovenia. As sites of illegal squatting and other illegal activities such as drug use and open drug trading in Christiania, both are seen as examples of subversive heterotopias, although also able to claim some element of legality through the residents’ claims of squatters rights. Both spaces also exist with cities, but both also have ‘a paradoxical relationship with the law’ that applies elsewhere in those cities.

‘Ultimately, it can be argued that in both places the borders and the notions of legality remain unclear, and so does the nexus of spatial and social factors that perpetuates this situation for decades. Thus, we aim to explore why and how these distinct places have become normalised without losing their unregulated/illegal status (or at least part of it), and how the traditional hierarchies (or scales as per Marston, 2000; Valverde, 2009) of the law can “stretch”, should places-pecific reasons allow it’ (p2224).

In these cases, scale is an important concept, because it assesses the power distance between those at the top of a hierarchy who make the laws, and those upon whom the law falls. Thus scale jumping considers how high those towards the lower ends of the hierarchy may attempt ‘to reach higher and more broadly recognised norms, whilst bypassing the “steps” that social order prescribes’.


Christiania was first squatted in the late 1960s when homeless people first occupied the abandoned barracks in the centre of Copenhagen. Joined by ‘hippies and activists’ by 1971 ‘the proclamation of “Freetown Christiania” gained widespread media attention’, and in 1973 was declared by the government as a ‘social experiment’, with residents given rights in 1989 by the Christiania Act. However, this did not stop the unrest between the state and Christiania’s residents.

‘In 2011, after a Supreme Court ruling, the state was awarded the full right of disposal of the Christiania area … Upon its victory, the government presented Christianites with an ultimatum; to either purchase the land at a discounted price, or Freetown Christiania would be redeveloped as a public housing association (Eriksen and Topping, 2011). Amongst fears of completely losing their autonomy, Christianites decided to accept the deal, and an association was formed that took over ownership and control of the land. The deal was finalised in 2012, officially putting an end to an era of conflict over use of the area between Christiania and the government’ (pp. 2228-2229).


‘Metelkova occupies the former Slovenian headquarters of the Yugoslavian Army. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, the site of Metelkova became part of a wider plan for the cultural and urban regeneration of Ljubljana. Metelkova was envisioned as a place dedicated to art and social life, and as such, it was promised to an association representing various stakeholders such as the student body of Ljubljana. Upon the departure of the army however, the city council hurried to illegally order the demolition of the buildings, leading the – by then already established – ‘‘Network for Metelkova’’ to take action and to non-violently occupy the site … According to the representative from the Museum of Contemporary Art, there are three different Metelkovas, representing art and social life, civil engagement, and commercial activity. Turning to the autonomous non-conforming part, it operates in all three fields of activity as a hub for artists and craftsmen, as a refuge for Ljubljana’s anarchist community, and as an area of well-visited bars and live music venues.’ (pp. 2229-2230).

The autonomous part of Metelkova also remains a squat. Properties do not comply with regulations set down under the 2012 Construction Act. Many bars remain unlicensed, and sales of alcohol avoid certain taxes, except VAT which is paid. However, in this case, the authorities seem happier to promote Metelkova and support its branding as a place that plays a big part in the cultural activities of the city.


Thus, while both spaces operate to a great extent as jurisdictional heterotopias, acting in many ways ‘other’ than proscribed by the laws that apply elsewhere in the cities in which these communities exist, both spaces have also become ‘normalised’ through place branding, with their potential as visitor attractions being recognised, and in some cases, supported by the municipal authorities with whom they remain at odds to a lesser or greater extent.

‘The prescribed legal authority, seeking to engulf and internalise the value of the self-claimed space, can only achieve this result by affording it a legal relevance in the traditional sense. This results in the oxymoron where the seemingly illegal practices are both accepted in their uniqueness, and exploited in the name of traditional capitalistic paradigms’ (p2235).

One final and important conclusion made in this article is that the relationship between law and space is not only legal and spatial, but must also consider social aspects that must also be considered when examining the relationship between place branding and the law, and that these three elements should also be considered when examining more ‘mundane activities and habits, and their influence upon the urban space and place-making practices stemming from bottom-up place branding approaches’.

The article can be accessed in full: here. You can find out more about research from IPM members here.

The full citation for this article is Ntounis, N. and Kanellopoulou, E. 2017 “Normalising jurisdictional heterotopias through place branding: The cases of Christiania and Metelkova”, Environment and Planning A, 49(10), pp. 2223–2240.

Member biographies

*Nikos Ntounis is a research assistant at the Institute of Place Management and a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has worked in various projects on place management and retailing, such as the ESRC-funded High Street UK 2020. His primary research interests also include place marketing, place branding, and the relationship between places and the law.

**Jenny Kanellopoulou is a lecturer in Law at the University of Salford, and a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. Her interest in place lies in the interaction between law and place in various contexts (e.g. squats) from a legal perspective.