Emmen, Netherlands


Emmen (Drents: Em'm) is a town in the Dutch province of Drenthe. It is the largest town in the eponymous municipality of Emmen (107,078 inhabitants). The place itself has a population of 56,560 on January 1, 2020.

Emmen fulfills a central function in the Zuidenveld region and beyond. Characteristic is the special urban development, also known as the 'open, green city'. New housing estates were built at a relatively large distance from the existing core, in order to preserve areas of valuable landscape. Emmen's nickname is Butterfly City, as an indirect reference to the former (Noorder) Dierenpark Emmen, which was succeeded in March 2016 by Wildlands Adventure Zoo Emmen.



Emmen originated on the southeast of the Hondsrug and was originally an esdorp. The (partly) still present ash and brink bear witness to this. In a charter by bishop Andries van Cuijk from 1139, there is mention of a court in Emne. It is the oldest mention of Emmen, for which both the names Emne and Empne were used. The significance of Emmen is perhaps the plain, the low land, but this is not entirely certain. The charter refers to a farm or a court, for which different names were used: Hoofdhof, Saalhof, Noble Hof and de Heerenhof. However, there is no certainty whether the same farm is always meant.


Prehistory, Roman Times and Middle Ages

The area where Emmen is located today, however, was inhabited by humans long before 1139. The presence of hunebeds shows that this was already the case about five thousand years ago. The finds of burial mounds, comb fields, a peat road, the Temple of Barger-Oosterveld and the Paar van Weerdinge also demonstrate human habitation in prehistoric times. However, the very first human (ish) and who lived in this area are the Neanderthals. Archaeological finds, such as flint tools, have demonstrated their presence.

In Roman times, Emmen did not yet exist as a residential center. However, various archaeological finds from that time have been made, especially on the ash trees, which demonstrate the presence of small farming settlements. Among other things, hut bowls and house plans from the 2nd to the 6th century were found. At the time, the area was part of the free Germania.

The first (wooden) church in Emmen dates from the 8th century; the first stone church was built in the 13th century. In 1229, Emmen, under the leadership of Bishop Wilbrand of Oldenburg, was completely burned down as part of a retaliatory action following the Battle of Ane. At that time, however, Emmen is still a small settlement and will remain so for a long time after the reconstruction.


The old town hall, lost in a fire in 1975.

Although Emmen itself is located on the Hondsrug sand ridge, and is therefore not a peat colony but (originally) an esdorp, the extraction of surrounding peat areas (also known as the Emmer Venen) has had a major influence on the development of the place.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the first pioneers began to settle in the peat areas around Emmen. In the beginning they survived mainly by growing buckwheat. The Emmerschans also dates from this time, although some sources claim that this redoubt has a predecessor dating from 1594. The peatworks began in 1850, but it did not really take off until around 1900. The peatland resulted in new settlements to the south and east of Emmen, including Emmer-Compascuum, Erica, Klazienaveen and Nieuw-Amsterdam. The peat workers often lived under appalling conditions in sod huts.

In 1881 Emmen gets its first official town hall. In 1974 it was decided to demolish the building, except for the front house. In 1975, however, the remainder burned down, after which complete demolition was inevitable. The only thing that remains of the old town hall of Emmen is a piece of decorative ceiling, which nowadays hangs in the stairwell of the new town hall.

In the 1920s and 1930s peat extraction declined drastically, due to the emergence of coal as fuel. A small revival followed due to the lack of coal in the First World War, but it did not help much. Unemployment and further poverty resulted and would remain so until the 1950s. In Emmen itself, poverty was relatively easy. In these years, it received various new facilities. The Noorder Dierenpark opened its doors for the first time in 1935, on a part of the site where an estate used to be: the Willingelandgoed, also known as the Willingekamp. In the same year, the antiquities room was also opened. In 1938, Emmen got its first hospital: the Diaconessenhuis Emmen.



On May 10, 1940, the Nazi regime invaded the Netherlands and many troops entered the country via the border at Emmen. The resistance in Emmen was involved in, among other things, the assistance of escaped prisoners of war, allied pilots and people in hiding. The organized resistance started in Emmen, as in the rest of the country, after the major strikes in the summer of 1943. However, the local district of the National Organization for Aid to People in Hiding only started helping people in hiding in 1943. Just before the Second World War, more than 180 Jews lived in Emmen. Most of them were deported to and killed in the extermination camps during the war. In 1951 there were about thirty Jews left. The Emmen synagogue survived the occupation years without damage and still exists.


The commander in chief of the German Wehrmacht in the Netherlands, Friedrich Christiansen, came to Emmen on January 2, 1945 and established his headquarters in the villa De Lindenhof. The general tried to extend the war from this villa. The resistance in Emmen informed the Allies that Christiansen was staying in De Lindenhof. On February 22, 1945, planes therefore carried out a bombing raid on the villa. Some homes were destroyed and six people were killed. However, the bombs missed their target: De Lindenhof still exists and is now a national monument. On April 10, 1945, the Liberation of Emmen took place under the leadership of General Maczek, after whom a park in Emmen is named.


From esdorp to Open Green City

After the Second World War, the economically weak southeast of Drenthe was designated as a development area, after which textile and metal factories, among other things, were established. The arrival of Bendien, Danlon and the ENKA / AKU in particular gave an important boost to employment. Industrialization made new housing estates necessary. These were built at a relatively great distance from the existing core in order to preserve scenic areas.

Emmen acquired international fame with this special urban design. The responsible urban planner was Niek de Boer. He realized that it would be difficult for the former peat workers from the bogs around Emmen to adapt to life in a city. He then came up with the concept of the Open Green City of Emmen, a place with a village living environment and urban facilities. The first residential areas were also developed within the framework of the open green city. Karel Hendrik Gaarlandt, the then mayor of Emmen, described it as follows:

This open green city is a city of which landscape elements are an integral part, because they border it, penetrate into it, are included in it; a city in which public buildings, such as secondary schools, hospitals or other institutions can be centrally located, but at the same time in a park-like environment, which one would otherwise at best only find on the periphery; a city too, where contact with nature can be a daily experience, as is the case in large parts of Emmen, what we like so much in Emmen, what strikes others in Emmen so much, what the charm is, once again of this industrial core. Let Emmen become a city, but remain a village. Let Emmen become what it wants and can be: an open green city.

The place also acquired national and international fame thanks to the (Noorder) Dierenpark Emmen. Particularly in the 1990s, innovations distinguished themselves from other animal parks. Later it went downhill with the park, after which only the municipality could avert bankruptcy. Partly for this reason, it was decided to close the park and to realize a completely new park on the other side of the center. As a result, the largest project ever in Emmen was started in 2012: Center Renovation Emmen. In total, more than 500 million euros was invested in the center. The most prominent parts of the plan, apart from the aforementioned 'relocation of the animal park', are the construction of a new theater, the construction of a traffic tunnel with a new city square above it and the transformation of the old zoo grounds into a city park.