Sea, neighbouring cultural landscape entities are the Krummhörn (D)
and Fivelingo (NL).I
Approx. 36 km²
(administrative district Leer)
In the Ems estuary
between the branches of the Westerems and the Osterems, Germany
Origin of name:
The first documentary
record Borkum dates to 1227 where it is called “Borkna”. Subsequently
other variations are used (1379 “Borkinna”, 1398 “Borkyn”, 1440
“Borchum Ooge”, 1462 “Borkom”, 1559 “Borchum”).
Relationship/similarities with other cultural entities:
Frisian Islands, Dutch
Islands, dune landscapes, mudflat, national park of Lower Saxony,
landscapes and settlements of maritime character. Similar whaling
tradition and tourist economy to other islands.
Characteristic elements and
Military fortifications (Napoleonic,
Kaiserzeit), coastal protection, 5 lighthouses, lightship, radio
history (first official radio service), early history of space flight
(first rocket launches by Wernher von Braun in 1934), tourism, whaling
tradition (Netherlands, Amsterdam, Emden, Hamburg), pirates (with
connections with the Netherlands [Les Gueux] and the Baltic Sea [Vitailleurs])
2. Geology and geography
Borkum is the most westerly and the largest of the East Frisian Islands.
Like Juist, Norderney, Baltrum, Langeoog, Spiekeroog and Wangerooge it
belongs to the group of barrier islands whose origin and development are
influenced by the waves and the tide. In order to prevent the islands from
shifting eastwards, their western ends are stabilised by groins and bank
stabilisations/beach walls. Unlike the other East Frisian Islands which have
the protective mudflats to their rear, Borkum is sited in the mouth of the
river Ems, north of the Netherlands coast and Lower Saxony, between the West
Frisian Island of Rottumeroog (Netherlands) and the East Frisian Islands of
Juist, Memmert with Kachelot-Plate and Lüttje Hörn (Lower Saxony). The
island and the bordering mudflat belong to the national park
It is assumed that Borkum and the other East Frisian Islands developed from
a Geest core which rose above the mudflats and promoted the agglomeration of
sediments. The Geest core in the North Frisian Islands, which also developed
during the ice ages, is still preserved.
Another influencing factor in the development of the East Frisian Islands is
the Average High Tide (2.4 m) which is typical for the region and also
promoted the agglomeration of the sediments and the development of the dune
island. Once the island had risen above the high tide level the development
of sand drifts and colonisation by plants became possible.
2.2 Present landscape
The island of Borkum, with its sandy beaches in front of the dunes on the
seaward side and the Randzel Mudflat to the mainland, rises to an average
height of 6m over sea level. Like all the East Frisian Islands Borkum is
located over a freshwater lens which is fed by rain water. There is also a
freshwater lake which was created in the course of the construction of the
The Binnengroden (island marshes) in particular have an important role for
agriculture on the island. Unlike all the other East Frisian Islands, only
Borkum had sufficient farm land for its needs, today however this is only
used as a sideline for the local market. The current economic basis is
tourism and during high seasons Borkum can even assume an almost “town-like”
Until 1863 Borkum consisted of two islands, the Westland and the Eastland,
which were separated by a tidal creek. The
Tüskendör (“In between“) still
indicates this old division. In the west of the island there is the Greune
Stee (“green spot“). This is a large birch and alder tree grove traversed by
dunes which was planted at the beginning of the 20th century on the
initiative of the head of the Heimatverein (Society for the Conservation of
The language of the island dwellers is almost identical to that of the
Groningerplatt which is spoken on the Dutch side of the Ems estuary.
3. Landscape and settlement history
The Institute for Historic Coastal Research and the Archaeological Service
of the East Frisian Landscape have undertaken large scale investigation of
the North Sea mudflats.
3.1 Prehistoric and Medieval Times
As a geologically recent landscape, the barrier islands of the Wadden Sea of
Lower Saxony are characterised by quaternary deposits. Until the present the
island of Borkum is subject to a continual process of expansion and
reduction. However, the village of Borkum in particular shows evidence of
great spatial continuity.
There is little archaeological evidence for the exact date for settlement on
the island of Borkum, but it can be deduced from the wider context of the
pre- and early historic development. At the beginning of the Holocene the
area of the present North Sea was dry land and the North Sea then lay at the
area of today’s Dogger Bank. It can be assumed that the former river marshes
of the Ems were accessible to Mesolithic foragers. In the course of the
post-glacial temperature rise, the rising waters of the North Sea reached
today’s coastal lines around 5.000 B.C. and the barrier islands developed.
It is possible therefore that the earliest archaeological sites are buried
beneath metres of sediments.
The Neolithic colonisation of the 4th millennium can be deduced from the
hinterland. The Funnel Beaker culture (TBK) is represented by a number of
sites within the coastal area of Lower Saxony. Again it is possible that
there are archaeological sites buried beneath the deposited marsh soils or
sands which agglomerated over the millennia.
The Bronze Age is represented by several sites in the Weser-Ems region,
including burial mounds and urn cemeteries. The same applies to the Roman
Iron Age and the following Dark Ages.
In the 13th century Borkum is first mentioned in a written document in the
context of a crusaders’ fleet anchoring off the island. In the 14th century,
during the time of the Hanseatic League, because of its highly favourable
strategic location, Borkum provided a refuge for pirates (Vitailleurs and
later Liekedeler). Between 1400 and 1401 the Hanseatic League got rid of the
pirate problem. During this time, about towards the end of the 14th century,
Borkum was ruled by East Frisian chieftains until in 1464 the regency passed
to the Counts of East Frisia.
3.2 Early Modern Times
The infrastructure of Borkum developed from the 16th century, with the
erection of several large buildings, the raising and rebuilding of the
church tower as a navigation mark (1576) and the completion of the Old Dyke
During this time of religious conflict, Borkum was politically dominated by
the war between the Netherlands and Spain. In 1569 the Geuex de Mer (“water
beggars“), like the Vitailleurs before them, chose Borkum because of its
good strategic position as their base for their fight against King Philip II
At the beginning of the 17th century the second so-called Upholmdeich (1620)
was built. At this date a strong resurgence took place in seafaring after
the disruption caused by privateering during the War of Spanish Succession
(1701-13). In this period flotsam and jetsam was a welcome source of income.
An intensified maritime trade and arctic whaling became important parts of
the Borkum economy. Whaling Commanders from Borkum played a very active part
in whaling until it declined at the end of the 18th century. One reason for
this was the war between the Netherlands and England in which Borkum sided
with the Netherlands. Another reason was the dramatic decline of the whale
population. The few preserved whalers’ graves on the
cemetery by the
old lighthouse with their
scull-decorated tombstones as well as the fences made of whale jaws, like
that at the reformed parsonage (Wilhelm-Bakker-Straße)
and at the local museum, provide
tangible evidence of this period.
After the death of Prince Carl Edzard in 1744, the last male descendant of
the house of Cirksena, Borkum passed to Prussia. From 1780 onwards,
following a period of wealth, a recession developed due to the decline in
whaling and sea trade.
3.3 Modern Times
At the beginning of the 19th century this economic decline picked up speed.
Influencing factors included the French occupation from 1810 to 1813,
combined with heavy storm floods and severe sand drifts. The population was
reduced by half, dwelling houses were deserted and migration to the mainland
set in. The Franzosenschanze as
a part of the Napoleon’s continental system from 1809 is a reminder of this
During the Peace of Tilsit (1807 to 1810), Borkum first passed to the Dutch
Kingdom and then to France. After the defeat of France, Borkum returned to
Prussia and at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 it was allocated to the
Kingdom of Hannover.
A few years later the Land Hanover rebuilt the church tower (old lighthouse)
of Borkum as the first lighthouse (1817). In 1828 the German language
replaced Dutch as the official language. During this period the island
dwellers again sank into poverty. An economic improvement began after 1830
when more and more merchant families from Emden began to spend their
holidays on Borkum. As early as 1844 an association acting as an agent for
accommodation was founded and in 1860 there were already c. 500 people who
spent their annual holidays on Borkum. Tourism grew to be a new economic
factor and led to further extensions to the island infrastructure. In 1879
the Great Lighthouse was
constructed, in 1888 the first pier was built, in 1891 canals were
constructed and in 1891 the water tower was built.
At this date the Peace of Prague led to the annexation of the Kingdom of
Hanover, and Borkum again became Prussian. In 1902 Emperor William II
decided to turn Borkum into a sea fortress. The strategically important
island was equipped with batteries and bunkers and was dominated for the
following 100 years by the military. Since the Second World War an extension
of the spa took place.
4. Modern development and planning
From an administrative point of view Borkum, which today belongs to the
administrative district Leer, became part of the federal state of Lower
Saxony only in 1946 and received its town charter in 1950. The town of
Borkum comprises the settlement Borkum in the west of the island as well as
the smaller communities of Ostland and Reede (in the south-east by the
Borkum therefore is subject to the urban and regional land-use planning of
Lower Saxony. The basis for this is the Law for Regional Planning and Land
Use Regulation (NROG) and its Supplemental Administrative Regulations (VV-NROG)
of Lower Saxony. The aims and principles of the land use planning are
defined in the Regional Planning Program of the Federal State of Lower
Saxony (LROP). The LROP forms the basis of the Regional Planning Program of
the Administrative Districts (RROP).
According to the regional planning report of 2005 of the federal office of
building and regional planning, Borkum lies in a region in which the
development of the population and employment is characterised by a
significant growth. Since the middle of the 19th century this growth is
based on the expansion of tourism.
4.1 Land use
For a long time the land use on Borkum was dominated by seafaring (trade,
whaling, fishing) and agriculture. Another important source of income was
the collecting of flotsam and jetsam. In this context it has to be taken
into account that next to the periods of economic crisis there were also
always periods of prosperity.
Nevertheless the decline of whaling, the changes within sea trade and the
decline of the fishing resources because of overfishing led to a massive
orientation towards tourism which, since the 1950s, has been the most
regionally influential factor. As early as 1850 Borkum had the status of a
seaside resort and, compared to the other seaside resorts, it was initially
considered to be rather cheap and casual.
After the Second World War Borkum grew to be a centre of tourism which has
over 150.000 visitors per season and about 2.2 million overnight stays today.
Directly or indirectly, tourism provides almost 80% of the jobs on the
island. The percentage of industry in contrast lies at 8.2%. Therefore
almost every inhabitant of Borkum is directly or indirectly dependent upon
Although Borkum, in contrast to the East Frisian Islands, has sufficient
farmland at its disposal, agriculture is declining slowly, largely because
tourism is an easier source of income. Another problem is the European
agricultural policy which is aiming at an optimisation, intensification and
4.2 Settlement development
Settlement development is historically dominated by economic criteria. Since
the middle of the 19th century tourism has been the primary factor. In
contrast to the other East Frisian Islands, Borkum, especially during the
summer, gives the impression of a mainland city with large building
complexes. As a licensed North Sea spa the islands has numerous recreational
and tourist facilities which dominate the appearance of the town (including
one of the largest youth hostels in Europe, swimming pool “Gezeitenland“,
boardwalk, a light railway, a museum of local history, lighthouses, etc.).
4.3 Industry and energy
Considering the lack of alternatives, it is probable that tourism is going
be the future base for the economy and development of the island. The
isolated location of Borkum makes the siting of industrial plants
unprofitable in comparison to mainland locations. Additionally, such
industrial settlements with their accompanying environmental stress could
hardly be co-ordinated with the tourist interests of the island.
The connection of Borkum with the German, respectively European, power and
gas supply system is achieved via three 20kV sea cables and two natural gas
pipelines. There are also several telecommunication cables linking the
island with the mainland, including the first sea cables to England, and
later the complete German overseas telegraph network, which have crossed the
island since 1856. In 1900 the Reichs-Post und Telegraphenverwaltung (postal
and telegraph administration of the empire) set up the first official
worldwide radio service on Borkum.
A pilot project for renewable energy on the island, the foundation “Borkum
West“ (a wind farm 45km north of Borkum with 12 wind energy plants) has been
authorised and the start of construction is scheduled for 2008. The
extension of the 65km-long power cable channel leading over Norderney to the
mainland is going to cause massive interference into the submarine cultural
landscape of the North Sea. In the German Exclusive Economic Zone of the
North Sea 968 wind-energy plants have been authorised and for the extension
phase 12.410 wind-energy plants are planned. If these plans were realised
then the island dwellers are worried about the safety of the ships because
instead of the present soft groundings on the sand and mud there will be the
danger of hard groundings on the anchorages of these plants. The anchorages
act like artificial reefs and are planned in the direct proximity of the
main shipping lanes. If the wind farm “Riffgat“, which is planned only 13.5
km from Borkum with 44 180m-high turbines, is constructed then it is going
to severely impede the cultural landscape.
Traditionally Borkum was accessed by water. Prior to 1850 the ferry only
called at Borkum every fortnight. With the growth in tourism a weekly
service was set up which alternately called at Greetsiel and Emden. In 1883
a jetty was constructed as part of the extension of the island train, which
was completed in 1888.
Today there is a tidal-independent connection between Borkum and Emden and
Eemshaven. The traffic to the mainland of Lower Saxony to Emden Außenhaven (outer
harbour) which is linked to the European railway network and to the harbour
of Eemshaven of Lower Saxony is serviced by car ferries and passenger
express ferries. From Borkum you can also reach the neighbouring islands.
With the completion of the railway line Emden-Meppen in 1856 Borkum was
integrated into the German railway network. This had an imminent effect on
the growth of tourism.
By the end of the 19th century the extension of the island railway line and
the harbour terminal began. The impulse for this was a threatening
competitive disadvantage in view of the extension of the traffic
infrastructure on Norderney. A horse tram was built in 1879 which was first
used for the transport of building material for the new lighthouse and was
rebuild as the island railway line. When Borkum became a sea fortress the
narrow gauge railway was extended from a length of 8km to over 40km, in
parts comprising two lines. During the Second World War, next to the “main
line” the military constructed several light railway lines which linked the
main settlement to the different parts of the fortress.
In the 1970s the importance of the island railway line grew in response to
the growth in tourism, and in 1990 it became necessary to add new rolling
stock. There is also an hourly bus service from the harbour which almost
follows the route of the train. The bus service also links the eastern part
of Ostland, which is not serviced by the railway line. Car traffic is
restricted on the island.
East of the town of Borkum there is a commercial airport for recreation
flights and for smaller passenger aircraft which is regularly serviced from
Emden. The flight time of the line Emden-Borkum is about 15 minutes. The
airport is also used by private aircraft.
5. Legal and spatial planning aspects
The community of Borkum belongs to the administrative district of Leer in
the federal state of Lower Saxony. With regard to land use planning the
community is subject to the regional planning of the federal state of Lower
Saxony, that is the landscape framework plan and the land use utilisation
plan of the community. In addition there is the regional planning concept
for the coastal sea of Lower Saxony. The territory of the community ends at
the MTHW line (line of the Average High Tide). The coastal sea below the
MTHW line is a community-free area. Accordingly, the regional and building
plan only applies to the land but not to the marine area.
The current regional plan for the federal state of Lower Saxony (LROP)
contains only a few regional planning goals for the marine area. To define
suitable areas for wind energy utilisation at sea even within the 12-seamile
zone (Riffgat and Nordergründe) an alternation of the regional planning
concept of the federal state of Lower Saxony – part II was published. In the
Wadden Sea regions of Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark wind energy farms
are not permitted. The area of the national park is registered at the EU for
the Fauna Flora Habitat guideline (FFH) and for the most part is a bird
sanctuary. It belongs to the biotope network system Natura 2000. The main
part of the park lies within the territory of the EU water withdrawal
guideline. In 1996 the Wadden Sea area within the borders of the national
park was recognised by the UNESCO as biosphere reservation in the context of
the program “Man and Biosphere“.
The sea lane Ems at the south-western shore of the island is joint
German-Dutch contract-territory. Borkum belongs to the area of the
Trilateral Wadden Sea Plan (D, NL, DK).
Globalisation has led to more intensive agricultural production and an
enlargement of farmsteads. The structural change in agriculture is leading
to a loss of historic and cultural landscape features as well as change of
use of redundant farm buildings. There is a lack of young people in farming
on the island resulting in gradual decline.
Since the 1950’s tourism has become the most influential factor on the
island. The numerous recreation facilities need to be maintained, renewed
and expanded which can create vulnerable situations for the cultural
6.3 Industry and energy
The construction of the power cable in the Wadden Sea will cause significant
disturbance to the sub water landscape of the North Sea. The construction of
extensive windfarms in the North Sea will impact severely on the visual
outlook of Borkum.
6.4 Natural resources
The fresh water reserves beneath the island has a diameter of up to 40
metres and is presently protected by the dykes and protective dunes. The
drinking water comes from shallow and deep wells which are situated on the
Ostland of the island and which tap the freshwater lens which is fed by rain
water. Another source of water is the „Waterdelle“. The continuous
withdrawal of water, however have caused the upper part to fall dry and this
problem is likely to continue.
The promotion of cultural landscape management by agriculture production
moving towards more high quality products for the local tourist market
provides the potential for protection of the historic landscape. Products
could be developed which are based on local tradition and at the same time
meet ecological and landscape preservation requirements.
For tourism to be successful in a sustainable way a close local, regional
and supra-regional cooperation of the official and private parties is
required. Good examples are collective marketing companies like „Die Nordsee
– Sieben Inseln eine Küste“ (The North Sea – Seven Islands And One Coast)
which was founded in 2004. Their aim is to make better use of the existing
range of potentials and synergies between the East Frisian Islands and of
the region of the North European Wadden Sea. Areas such as the seafaring and
agriculture history of the island as well as the history of the tourist
industry can be promoted.
Author: Ulf Ickerodt
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(Nationalpark beflügelt den Tourismus)