A prime example of a planned city, Emmen arose from several small farming and peat-harvesting communities which have dotted the province of Drenthe since the Middle Ages. Traces of these communities can still be seen in the form of the villages of Westenesch, Noordbarge and Zuidbarge: they have a separate history and layout, but are surrounded by the suburbs and the centre of Emmen.
The expansion of the town did not happen until after the Second World War. Suburbs were built in a clockwise direction around the old centre of Emmen, starting with Emmermeer directly to the north, and followed by Angelslo (for which an old village of the same name was demolished), Emmerhout (famed at the time for being built in the forest, quite separate from the town), Bargeres, the Rietlanden and Parc Sandur. Construction of the last suburb, called Delftlanden, has only recently begun, with the streets laid out and construction of houses and other buildings yet to begin.
There are few historic landmarks left within the town, but those few include the church on the market square, where a church has been standing since the Middle Ages, the court of law building, dating from the beginning of the twentieth century and the post office from the same time. In the town's environs an earthwork by Robert Smithson, "Broken Circle/Spiral Hill," may be found.
Prime economic booster since the 1980s is the zoo, the Dierenpark Emmen. Begun in the 1930s, it was almost completely redesigned in the 1970s, and is now co-owned by the municipality of Emmen. It attracts over 1.5 million visitors per year. Important industries include Teijin Aramid, DSM Engineering Plastics, Wellman and Diolen Industrial Fibers. There are extensive glasshouse complexes for horticulture, especially in the Klazienaveen-Erica area. The governmental Topographical Department of the Netherlands is located in Emmen. The municipality offers some 38,000 jobs.
Emmen is the second most populous urban area of Drenthe. Its municipality is one of the largest in the Netherlands, although the area outside the town borders of Emmen is rather rural. The only villages of importance are Emmercompascuum, Klazienaveen, Nieuw-Amsterdam and Schoonebeek.