An inside look into a mining town. Heerlen – from then to now

Sara Maryniak and Marisa López report-

On your average day, Heerlen casts sounds through the tall trees in the city center, and brightens up your day with the beautiful visuals on the sides of empty buildings. But it wasn’t always this way. Heerlen has experienced many changes since the 1960’s when the last mine closed and the average lifestyle was changed forever. With the fall of the mines, it could be said that there has been an ongoing nightmare within the Dutch city, Heerlen. Until recently, there has been a rampant usage of drugs, high rates of unemployment and people migrating to other areas. Heerlen is currently in the middle of a complete overhaul aimed at stopping the shrinking population and encouraging growth back into the region.

Heerlen used to be known as the Eastern Mining Area and led the Dutch during the mining era. After this boom, when the final mine closed in 1974, jobs were lost, unemployment was high and the economy had to be completely reconstructed. But, as well as this, the people of Heerlen had to re-adapt to a brand new lifestyle. The closure of the mines led to a change in what used to be considered life’s two greatest things in Heerlen: religion and mining.

The high rates of unemployment began to be addressed at the same time in the decade after the closure of the mines, but not in a way that would create a viable future for Heerlen.  An assistant professor in urban geography at the Department of Geography, Planning and International Development Studies of the University of Amsterdam, Dr. Marco Bonjte, explains that the government did bring a lot of new work into Heerlen when it was needed, but it was white collar work such as the national office of European statistics, and an office for the national pension fund that these former miners were not skilled to do. “Yes work was brought into the region, but there was a mismatch between the people who worked in the mines and the new work that was provided. These people did not possess the skills to become civil servants,” he explains.

“This resulted in a lot of unemployment still remaining in the region. Many of the new jobs were occupied by people who came from outside of the region. Therefore, this did not fix the unemployment problem at all,” explains Marco Bontje.

The high level of long-term unemployment led to both drug problems and a loss of religious beliefs for the people in Heerlen. These people gave up on everything – as their whole lives were centered around the mines, they had no idea what to do now they were gone – and this had a severe impact on every part of these people’s lives.

The population of Heerlen is still shrinking to this day, and by 2050 there is expected to be a 27.5% decrease in total population. But with this being said, there are several economic, social and cultural renovations taking places in an attempt to transform Heerlen from an old, abandoned mining town into a town with great potential and a long and sustainable future.

One of the stakeholders invested in Heerlen from a small independent regional agency, Dr. Jan Rademaker, tells that in the last few decades, “people were feeling like they were abandoned because they didn’t have a job – but not only that, it was an area that a lot of people didn’t believe anymore. The church and the mines weren’t around and then the Americans came with their drugs, and it was for a lot of people an attractive choice and a way to forget their problems.”

But as previously mentioned, this is all changing. The town is doing better than it has since the closure of the mines and people are starting to feel hopeful once again. Dr. Rademaker explains it will take at least a couple of decades for Heerlen to get to where it wants to be, but with the work from stakeholders, investors and the governments at all levels this kind of change is possible for Heerlen.

Currently, the typical person that you can find in Heerlen is a lower educated, and much older person” and all hope is set on this changing in the future decades and on Heerlen becoming a key town in Dutch society once again.

The main goal at the moment is to tackle the shrinking population and to make the region more attractive to outsiders and especially to young people. Dr. Bontje tells, “if you manage to keep more people in the region, less people are leaving, and that is how you start to tackle all of the problems.”

THREE SIDES: THE MINE, THE CHURCH AND THE DRUGS

You had the mine in the center where people worked, next to the mine there was a church because people had to go to church before and after work, and then you had a school for the children to become miners, next you had places of leisure and then you had houses next to it. The life of a miner was just in that village and they worked 6 or 7 days a week and every day was the exact same and it was all organized by the church and the mines. They had the final say in everything and once they were gone… Life was chaos,” says Jan Rademaker.

These two parties – the church and the mine owners – designed the present life of these people, but also decided their bleak futures. They decided that they didn’t want Heerlen to become a big city. This was because there were strikes and minimised religious beliefs in the big cities. The church wanted Heerlen to become a lot of small villages next to each other, so that is how it was created and that was how it stayed.

Author of ‘Urban decline within the region: Understanding the intra-regional differentiation in urban population development in the declining regions Saarland and Southern-Limburg’, Dr. Josje Hoekveld, holds this point of view. “They (the church and the mines) were determining where you were living, there were areas appointed for the miners to live so these people were surrounded by the same people and the same area day in and day out.”

During the mining boom of the early 20th Century, the population also experienced rapid growth throughout Heerlen. However, all of this changed when the closure of the mines began in 1965, and even more so after 1974 when the last mine closed. The population started shrinking and an economic decline sharply followed as well.

Dr. Hoekveld explains the end of the mining era which led to the economic and population decline: “So, you had the church and the mine and what happened when the mines were closed in 1965 was that people had no jobs anymore. This was a really huge tragedy: people were leaving, people were finding other types of jobs. This was a problem because these miners had a very specialist type of job, it was extremely dangerous, so for these people they were sitting at home thinking, “my God, what do we do?” The psychological aspect of the miners was huge, these people had no purpose anymore.”

But to make matters even worse for these people, the decade of the 1970’s is known for the wide increase in the consumption of drugs. The closure of the mines and the loss of beliefs and hope lead them to look for shelter in the dark world they were now living in.

Related very closely with this, an international conflict-affected Heerlen on an unbelievably local scale, that is the Vietnam War (1955 – 1975). In this area, there used to be a big American military base where a lot of American soldiers were addicted to drugs after their return from the Vietnam War. “You had a lot of American soldiers who came here with drug problems after the war, and mixed with the population that was already unemployed and carrying a lot of drug problems themselves, the drug problems got bigger and bigger in the area,” says Mr. Robert Mantel, an employee for Stadsregio, a small independent regional office.

Dr. Hoekveld points out that, even more importantly, Heerlen was the drug home of the Netherlands during this period. All these problems spread a feeling of despair and unease which caused the destruction of the mines and undermined the religious foundation in the area. The priest of the St. Francis of Assisi Church (in the city center of Heerlen) has witnessed that 50 years ago, they would get 600 people in the church for three masses a day, and now they would be lucky to reach 20 people in their church per day.

People were feeling like they were abandoned because they didn’t have a job, but not only that, it was an area that a lot of people didn’t believe anymore. The church and the mines weren’t around and then the Americans came with their drugs and it was for a lot of people an attractive perspective to forget their problems,” tells Dr. Rademaker.  

WHAT’S NEXT?

Above there is enough information about what is planned to be done and the changes that are hoping to occur in the next couple of decades to bring life back into Heerlen, but now we have to talk about how these changes are going to occur. Heerlen is receiving a lot of support in a great response to turning the region around. There are several stakeholders, and funds being received from many different projects and levels of governments to ensure success in all areas. Not only this, but the services, governments, and municipalities surrounding Heerlen are also working together.

The goal of Heerlen is to move from a town known for its mining history into a town that can be known for its advanced students, its business startups, its tourist attractions and its smart and innovative population in order to make this town one of the leaders within the Netherlands. In order to do this the structural economic, cultural and political problems are all being addressed.

Head of both Economic and Environmental issues, Civil Servant for Heerlen Council, Mr. Eric-Jan Reemers says, “we gained new employment, office employment, pension funds, we attracted CBS, we attracted national services so we created new employment which used new skills that were not around here. We have now educated people, and now we have a different population that can work. Not only in manual labour, but also skilled labour so what we have to do now is get these people encouraged and motivated to work and improve Heerlen.”

Due to the shrinking population in Heerlen, there were a lot of empty houses and empty schools. Thus, Dr. Rademaker, explains that the first thing that his regional office planned to do was to create a plan to reduce the plans for housing and make it a goal of demolishing the houses that they didn’t need anymore. With this plan, around 3000 houses between 2010 and 2015 have been demolished and they have built 500 new sustainable houses for people to live longer who are aged which include all the care and facilities they need. This has helped clean up the city, as well as make it more viable for the current living population.

The importance behind taking back all of these plans for housing is that, on one side you see a lot of empty buildings which doesn’t make the city nicer or a nicer place to live, and the other point is that when you have more houses than there are people living in those houses, the price of houses goes way down and that’s something we can can’t afford in Heerlen, and believe it or not it is actually something we can change,” tells Dr. Mantel.

He called the scenario of Heerlen “a donut city”: “every person and company in the centre of the city left because there were so many empty buildings which created a situation you do not want to be in, prices go down and the attractiveness of the city is depleted. You have to make real estate smaller and smaller so you get a situation which is interesting to live, and interesting to buyers/sellers,” explains Dr. Mantel.

Another project that is being created, administered and ran in Heerlen, which the Council is hoping will take off, is a new energy project that uses the mine corridors underground. This is an impressive project to come out of Heerlen as it has the potential to cut energy costs and to expand throughout the entirety of the Netherlands if all goes to plan.

We have a project that created new energy with those mine corridors down in the ground, they were filled with water and then the water was heated. We devised a system in which we extracted the heat and put it into buildings and we exchanged the heat and cold between the mine corridors and the buildings. This system is now so well developed we could implement it tomorrow in Amsterdam. It’s quite simple, for example, you have a data system form a factory which produces a lot of heat, we can use that to heat an apartment building or the other way around,” says Mr. Reemers.

The success of this project would create jobs and bring more money into the region. “If we could become energy neutral we could save three-quarters of a billion euros, this money can then be invested in the region again because people do not have to spend this money on energy bills. So, we devise a plan of which we can become self-sufficient in measures to make new energies, we want to be at this point in about 25 years, adds Mr. Reemers.

This time frame fits into the one Dr. Rademaker admitted to earlier. If all goes to plan Heerlen could go back to it’s days as one of the leading towns in the Netherlands. As I have outlined, it does not have to be all negative when dealing with shrinking towns, there are positives and many opportunities. “You’ve a lot of space to experiment in a shrinking region, if you want to use a meadow to put on solar panels, we have a meadow, if you want to have an old office building to experiment in, we have an old office building,” says Mr. Reemers.

One of the most impressive things about this project is that the ambition of the plan is to be totally independent through every stage of development in this project. The people will be planned in Heerlen, created in Heerlen and operated in Heerlen. This is made possible by another successful project that was created in the past few years, Smart Services. Mr. Reemers explains, “We devised Smart services where educational organizations, like universities, are working together in order to create new ways of using data. A common goal in order to create new techniques. This kind of industry attracts young people, connects government with education and young people and creates new energy. This is what I meant by shrinkage being able to be an opportunity as well.

According to Mr. Mantel, Smart Services is a good initiative in the area of finance to try to impulse people to become more active themselves starting their own companies when they have a good idea. “There was nothing for tourism over here, and then we came from a mining region to a really green area and a lot of tourism attractions started over here so this is also things that make it more attractive to live and which also creates employment for people over here.”

We think there are a lot of these mining regions with the same economic development that needs to be transformed into a new economy and new perspective. We are the only region in the Netherlands that is like this, thus we have a lot of room to work with,” says  Dr. Rademaker.

Mentioned above are only three of many projects that are starting in Heerlen right now. These are projects which aim to bring Heerlen back to it’s a powerful position that once led the Dutch. These are projects that hope to stop the shrinking population, to put a stop to the long-term levels of high unemployment and most importantly these are projects which aim to give the people in Heerlen hope once again. In the last 50 years, this town has gone from its highest point down to its lowest, and these projects full of innovation and creativity and with the ability to create a sustainable future for Heerlen are what this town needs to reach its highest point. These projects are using new and clean energy’s, they’re self-sufficient and not only are they going to improve the lives of all the people in Heerlen, they also have the ability to make the entirety of the Netherlands more attractive.

It is not expected that these changes will happen overnight, but the people within Heerlen and the support that the town is receiving are all steps in the right direction. The mines and the churches may not lead Heerlen anymore, and the town is growing into a bigger city, but Heerlen will always be known as a former mining town and religion will always be visible.

These projects are collaborations with industries, governments, and organizations all the way from a European level to a regional level, from an international level to a provincial level. Heerlen is a great example of how former industrial towns can be transformed into a town that will lead Europe well into the twenty-first century.

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