Floriade opens in the Netherlands on 14 April 2022; the AIPH-approved A1 World Horticultural Expo will demonstrate to citizens how thriving in a ‘living library of trees and plants’ is more fun, sustainable and healthier than surviving in a concrete jungle. In FCI January 2022, we feature CEO Hans Bakker.
Floriade is the brand name for this A1 World Horticultural Expo, which has occurred in the Netherlands every ten years since the first AIPH-approved Expo in Rotterdam in 1960.
The 2022 Floriade site is in Almere, the Netherlands’ eighth-largest city inhabited by a young and fast-growing multicultural population. The International Horticultural Expo site spans 62ha. The event aims to raise the profile of ornamental horticulture and highlight the importance of trees and plants in making better lives and creating better cities for the future.
For Almere, this event is good news as, unfortunately, it is also a city that has experienced bad press in the past. In 2008, for example, a poll among the readers of a Dutch national newspaper crowned Almere as ‘the ugliest city of the Netherlands’, a message which British travel book writer Redmond O’Hanion commented upon ten years later.
The negativity is not the kind of promotion the organiser and the Expo’s sole shareholder, the city of Almere, would have wished itself.
Floriade first has to overcome the harsh expectations from the Dutch popular press, tarnishing Floriade’s image. They are historically hostile, reporting endlessly on the 1992 Floriade Zoetermeer, the 2002 Floriade in Haarlemmermeer and the 2012 Floriade in Venlo incurring €5 million, €8million and €9 million losses, respectively. Adding to this are critical questions aimed at the current Floriade board – should it be double staffed, and should the CEO earn the same salary as a minister?
These kinds of adverse reporting seem to be rooted in typical Dutch Calvinism, drowning in details and constantly calling for introspection, frugality and modesty.
In essence, good virtues but also an obstacle for ‘big picture thinking’.
The big picture, we all know, is that the planet is warming and continuing on the current path is not an option.
That’s why Floriade Expo 2022 aims to address the world’s biggest challenges, such as rapid urbanisation, a growing world population, depletion of natural resources and climate change. There’s a need for sustainability in all walks of life. This Expo’s theme – Growing Green Cities – is one way to demonstrate solutions to the world’s biggest problems and give a massive boost to the ornamental horticultural sector.
So, perhaps one of the major accomplishments of the team behind Floriade Expo 2022 so far is that they have clung to their beliefs, to the Expo’s four themes: greening the city, feeding the city, healthying the city, and energising the city.
The Floriade team acknowledge that the ten years of preparation have not always been easy, but they are now ready for it.
There’s big thinking, long term thinking and – rather unsurprisingly – a good dose of green prose in the Expo’s mission statement.
Plants matter to people, to cities, countries and the world. Trees, shrubs and plants can manage adverse weather conditions and climate change through water management, reducing temperatures, cutting pollution and carbon sequestration. What’s more, for us humans, flowers, plants, and trees improve our health and wellbeing and promote economic development.
On 13 April 2022, the Dutch King, Willem-Alexander – who, contrary to his mother, decided not to bestow royal patronage on Floriade when he became King in 2013 – will cut the ribbon. From that date, the Expo anticipates it will welcome two million visitors by the time it closes on 9 October 2022.
Currently, it is less than four months before the grand opening of this ambitious project. CEO Hans Bakker, who joined Floriade on 23 April 2021, tells FCI he feels confident.
“The horticultural content is prospering, helped by the wet summer of 2021, all through which the planted trees and plants have established themselves extremely well. Folks from previous Floriade’s tell me that the ‘green component’ of this Expo is in an advanced stage compared to past editions.”
The presence of international country pavilions mainly contributes to the success of a World Expo, and Floriade is no different. In a letter to the House of Representatives, Dutch agriculture minister Carola Schouten wrote on 2 November 2021 that the country’s agricultural network worldwide helped book the presence of 22 countries.
Critics may say this number is far from the promised 40 countries. However, from a glass-half-full perspective, 22 countries is a top job considering the massive disruption the pandemic is causing.
Bakker says, “Judging from the international talks and negotiations, we remain confident that we can welcome at least 33 countries. We are taking into consideration that this is truly a horticultural show. Not every country has a ‘blooming’ horticulture industry, which limits the potential of some exhibitors. Next, there will always be countries with tight budgets. Considering that BIE and AIPH regulations stipulate a minimum of 10 countries to deserve the title of World Expo, we are far above target. Which doesn’t mean we will not go the extra mile, laboriously working until we have reached the last seven countries. Bhutan has confirmed its presence, which begs the question, how hot is Bhutan’ horticulture?
Bakker asserts, “Some countries are in the grey area; they have a horticultural aspiration or don’t want to miss the opportunity to promote themselves at a World Expo. In the case of Floriade, this means that they need to play towards one of the Expo’s sub-themes.
“The case of Bhutan is interesting as the kingdom in the Himalayas aims to convert its agriculture to organic agriculture to increase productivity and farmer’s income while safeguarding its environment. At Floriade, Bhutan, known as ‘the happiest country’ will explain why it prioritises Gross National Happiness above Gross Domestic Product.”
The Greenhouse will be one of the places where the exhibition reflects its commitment to sustainability.
This giant glasshouse has 10,000m2 floor space and a 170 metres long boardwalk offering views overlooking gerberas in all colours of the rainbow, tasty strawberries and bell peppers and amazing anthuriums.
Inside, visitors will learn how greenhouses help build circular agriculture, combat climate change, increase biodiversity and feed the ever-growing world population.
Bakker calls it the clubhouse of the Dutch greenhouse industry, offering an eclectic mix of B2B and B2C. He says it is “Inspired by London’s Crystal Palace from 1851. The Greenhouse is where the industry comes together for congresses and events.”
He adds, “The venue equally serves to increase knowledge and close the gap between producers and end consumers on sustainable practices, innovative greenhouse technology and outcomes.”
In the horticultural supply chain, the retailer – florist, garden centre, supermarket or DIY store – sells directly to the consumer, with brand building driving purchases.
Despite the retail sector’s relatively low interest in Floriade, Bakker – who previously served as CEO of Amsterdam RAI and by association understands the industry inside out thanks to HortiFair and GreenTech – thinks Floriade offers producers a not-to-be-missed opportunity to liaise with the end consumer.
This opportunity is also because the boundaries between B2B and B2C in ornamental horticulture are increasingly blurring.
“Growers benefit from showcasing their products and connecting directly with the consumer. Remember that flowers, plants and trees are often just one of the various products on their shelves for retailers. Producers have much pride and knowledge to engage with end consumers effectively.
“Consumers will start to actively seek a product they have spotted at Floriade and will lead retailers to stock the product in response, something in marketing terms is called a pull effect.”
This will be the seventh Floriade. Previous host cities of Floriade include Rotterdam (1960), Amsterdam (1972 and 1982), Zoetermeer (1992), Haarlemmermeer (2002) and Venlo (2012).
An anticipated two million visitors, at least 72 per cent of whom will be from home and 28 per cent from abroad, will explore the exhibition. Visiting from abroad will be primarily Germans, Brits and Belgians.
In terms of visitor demographics, Bakker notes that the most significant chunk of visitors will fall within the 55-65 age bracket, accounting for 30 per cent of visitor numbers.
Bakker explains, “The number one target group is the people who visit a garden centre every other week or month. Floriade is a mega destination garden centre for this green-fingered type of visitors. The second target group includes younger people in the Millenials and Generation Z cohort and, who on social media, are emerging as the sustainability generation. Floriade Academy is a programme to connect students to the natural world and will see, for example, 65,000 school children visiting the Expo grounds.”
True sustainability is about a different mindset, which encompasses a good dose of sensitivity, values and morality, perhaps not the best ingredients for creating a wow factor?
Bakker says, “I reckon one million bulbs in bloom, and a giant living library of trees and plants will automatically make a marvellous experience for visitors and will give it the wow factor. The six-month Expo programme has a packed cultural and culinary programme schedule of of music, dance, theatre, and excellent food on offer daily.”
Walking through Floriade will be undoubtedly a memorable experience. Dutch architect Winy Maas deserves the credit for a comprehensive and ‘systemic’ design. The benefit of using a square 800 by 800 metres grid and placing it on top of existing features such as woodland, water, island and a highway, is comprehensive. It provides a geometric regularity that visitors will easily understand and navigate around.
Famed landscape designer Niek Roozen from the Netherlands put his signature upon a bold planting scheme with the Green City Arboretum as a shining example of the city’s green development.
Floriade’s botanical collection will contain 750 tree genera, 90,000 shrubs and 200,000 perennials planted in alphabetical order. Another highlight, in particular for fans of the white Sissinghurst gardens in the UK, is the Flower Belt, a 3.2km gauntlet planted with green and white coloured and pollinator-friendly blooms. Think hedera helix ‘Arborescens’, buddleia, and roses.
Once Floriade finishes, the Green City Arboretum will become part of Almere’s newest residential area, Hortus.
“Floriade Expo 2022 wants to leave a serious legacy by laying the foundation for a new housing zone,” stresses Bakker. He continues, “Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to build several eco-homes to incorporate them in the Expo. But the underground infrastructure is there, as well as the 14-storey residential tower block Flores, a horticultural high school, Flevoland’s Food Forum and a care home. Connecting the city centre with Hortus are nine bio-based bridges, unique in the world.”
Do you need a Floriade to build a new housing site? Bakker elaborates, “The Floriade site is a protected nature area. Preserving trees in development takes time, good design, communication, and money. I am convinced that without Floriade, you would have needed an additional 20 years to develop the Hortus site.”
In a country suffering from a tenacious and precarious housing crisis, naturally, there will be much delight among the 700 to 800 lucky people who will be Hortus’ newest residents.
However, the truth is that during its ten-year journey of preparations, environmentalists have argued that Hortus is commercial exploitation at the end of the day, harming a natural community that was previously left untouched. Calling Hortus a sustainable development, they think, is a farce and primarily serves to ease our minds and feel good about ourselves.
Bakker emphasises that Floriade is also about fun. Upon arrival, visitors will hop on a cable car, providing them with a panoramic overview of the patchwork of the Arboretum’s massive alphabetised planting plots.
From Acer to Zelkova, from Azara to Zenobia, plants matter to the planet, its people, and its cities. A series of ‘fun facts’ will explain how each tree can help improve citizens’ health and wellbeing and fight off the impact of climate change.
Bakker says, “Past Floriade Expos dedicated 80 per cent of their space to trees, shrubs, plants and flowers and 20 per cent to issues such as feeding the world sustainably.
“The 2022 edition, however, will have 45 per cent of its surface planted with greenery, with the remainder touching on feeding the city, healthy city and energysing the city.”
Floriade is not a theme park, Bakker insists. “There’s much content to read, understand and explore. In its Biotopia pavilion, Germany will highlight the delicate balance between man and nature.
Japan will combine a traditional farmhouse structure with new technologies. And Indonesia’s country pavilion will tell the intriguing city story of sinking Jakarta and what urgent actions are needed to avoid losing 25 per cent of the capital’s area, which will submerge within 30 years without intervention. It’s a problem for many coastal megacities.”
There is no better place to learn more about the love and hate relationship between the Dutch and water than Almere.
Floriade Expo 2022 sits four metres below sea level on the land reclaimed from Ijsselmeer lake in the 1950s and 1960s.
Bakker notes, “There is a nice anecdote about the recreational Weerwater lake on whose banks Floriade is partially on. First, they reclaimed the land from the sea by taking out the water.
Eventually, city planners realised that water is an important design element and brought in the water again – hence the Dutch literal Weerwater, which English translated means WaterAgain.”
The young city of Almere completed its first house in 1976, and the city has currently 217.000 inhabitants.
During his onboarding programme, Bakker was in the city centre several times. He agrees that it may lack the traditional Dutch architectural charm but features modern installations and several good restaurants, making a pitch for Floriade’s top restaurants and master chefs at the same time.
Months of lockdown and travel restrictions have led many citizens to appreciate the importance of nature much more. As such, Floriade has never been a better time to inspire households and city governments to green their lives and visit Floriade. So, Bakker believes the appetite is there.
How courageous was it to take up his role as CEO of a €40 million expo that was plagued by escalating budgets?
Bakker, who displays a good sense of humour, “Well, it was not the plan to do so.” More seriously, he continues, “The thing is: Floriade is greater than the sum of its parts. Budget is a matter of how you calculate. Anticipating the building of 800 houses in 20 years is not a minor thing.
“The media tells me that the benefits of a residential area and Floriade is like comparing apples and pears. Why should it?
“Legally, a real estate developer, a city and an event should all work in tandem. This reality does not mean I am not keeping an eagle eye on costs. To date, I am confident that the Expo will not cost much more than planned.
“I am not saying we will hit our target but it is not impossible.”
Is the lack of headline sponsors creating a major headache? Bakker notes, “We have several sponsors, but to date, we haven’t caught the big fish if that’s what you are asking.”
The impact of Covid-19 is playing against Floriade and makes it hard for companies to say yes with certainty.
“It’s a tough job. Fortunately, my hair started to turn grey way before I accepted the position. So it would not become any greyer,” concludes Bakker.