Location: Beemster, Netherlands, Europe
Theme: Regions & Landscapes
Laid out in a rectangular grid and crisscrossed by evenly spaced roads and canals, the 17th-century Beemster Polder, on land reclaimed from a lake, exemplifies Renaissance ideals of town planning.
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The innovative and intellectually imaginative landscape of the Beemster Polder had a profound and lasting impact on reclamation projects in Europe and beyond. The creation of the polder marks a major step forward in the interrelationship between humankind and water at a crucial period of social and economic expansion.
Lagoons and deltas take up the greater part of Dutch land. Over the centuries this land was made habitable by means of land reclamation and protection against the water. Of the 3.4 million hectares that now constitute the Netherlands, a third is below sea level. If no dykes had been constructed and if there were no drainage of excess water, 65% of the country of today would be under water.
The northern coastal area of the Kop van Noord-Holland and along the Wadden Sea was once an interconnected series of mud-flats that extended to south-western Denmark. The earliest habitation was on knolls, which offered protection from the water before sea walls and dykes had been constructed. The need to 'create' new land arose from the damage caused by continual flooding, with the added bonus of obtaining excellent agricultural land. Five factors influenced the process of land reclamation: the availability of capital for investment, stable political and economic relationships, and the availability of technical means, entrepreneurial spirit, and good prices for farmland.
The battle against the water began in the northern part of Noord-Holland, in the area situated above the former open waters of the IJ (Hollands Noorderkwartier), by keeping out the seawater. From the 16th century onwards efforts were geared towards draining lakes and ponds situated further inland. Land reclamation took place by draining the big lakes, particularly in the northern part of Holland. This process was made possible by the drastic improvement in pumping and draining technology using windmills driving waterwheels. From the end of the Middle Ages the entire north of the IJ was enclosed within a ring of dykes; however, considerable areas of water survived within the individual polders and the centre of the region was still occupied by the large Schermer, Purmer, and Beemster lakes.
Wind power was used to drain the polders as early as the 15th century, through the use of wind-driven water-pumping mills. The development of the revolving cap on windmills made it possible to drain the larger lakes. From the beginning of the 17th century onwards it became possible to drain large bodies of water, such as the Beemster, by using networks of three or four windmills. The initiative to drain the water of the Beemster was taken by a number of wealthy regents and merchants from Amsterdam and a number of high-ranking civil servants in The Hague.
In 1608 the dyke section between Purmerend and Neck was subcontracted, as was the drainage canal to the Zuyder Zee. In that same year a start was made on laying out the canals and roads to prepare for the allotment of land. Within the allotments the owners would be allowed to dig as many canals and ditches as they saw fit. The blocks between the roads are divided by canals into four blocks of about 85 ha. It was finally decided to divide the land into five allotments. The allotments were made in 'packages'; the value of each package compared to the others would be the same, as poor soil was compensated by good. Shovels and pickaxes were used in the basic engineering works; the foundations for sluices and windmills were sunk using manual pile-driving installations operated by 30-40 people. Reclamation was effected by means of windmills; reclamation of the Beemster took place with the construction of fifteen windmill networks.
The polder finally became a reality on 19 May 1612, and the plots of land were allotted. The bye-law of 1616 includes conditions on 'plants and trees'. This created an 'ideal' landscape from 1620 onwards with the planting of the lanes with trees. First only the northern and western side of the roads were planted, so that the heat of the sun could dry the roads, which were still waterlogged. After conversion from drainage by wind to steam power in the 1800s, water was discharged into the belt canal by three pumping stations. In the 20th century these were converted to diesel power, and now drainage is carried out by the fully automated electric pumping station.