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Green energy at the World Horticultural Expo Floriade 2012

The World Horticultural Expo Floriade 2012 in Venlo, Netherlands, reveals the potential for green infrastructure to reshape the way we live today

When planners and designers think about landscape they instinctively think about ‘green’: green hearts to developments; green lungs encircling those same developments and green roofs to top it all off.

Into this already crowded lexicon is a recent introduction: green infrastructure (GI). Although the enhancement of environmental and spiritual wellbeing that lies at the heart of GI is not exactly new, the strictures of GI demand a more holistic approach to development, where green is as good as grey. In other words, parks, forests and wetlands are as good as roads and provide as much value. The Landscape Institute (LI) sees GI as ‘a process which involves planning, design, implementation and management… to achieve many social, environment and economic benefits enhanced through connectivity’.

Thus our limited land resources are assessed and planned as multi-functional, interconnected ecosystems which benefit everyone; with their natural systems intact and not subsumed by conflicting pressures. Quite appropriate, you would think, for such a crowded island as ours.

However, the inherent nature of GI is demanding and process heavy, with many professionals and local authorities ill-equipped to carry out the task thoroughly. Indeed the LI cites a lack of practical understanding; a shortage of practitioners; dysfunctional funding streams; and (perhaps most tellingly) difficulties with quantifying the full economic benefits from investment in GI, as reasons for why more successful projects guided by its tenets have yet to be achieved. It reflects the all too common misconception that the natural environment is a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘must have’.

UK planning protection tends to favour high-quality landscapes whereas GI aims to recognise and enhance all landscapes, while at a European level the European Landscape Convention (ELC) promotes a more integrated approach but offers little in the way of mechanisms or frameworks by which to achieve it. There is momentum behind GI but there needs to be a greater number of success stories to make the process more credible and its benefits legible.

The UK is not alone with trying to respond to ever more complex planning issues: in the Netherlands the issues are more pressing. It is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe with a highly complex landscape layered with technical and commercial complexity. Were it not for man’s intervention, not only would the Netherlands’ landscape look very different, but much of it wouldn’t exist at all. Every adaptation to the land has reverberations on everything from ecology to industry, meaning that for the Dutch, a GI-type approach is the only option. There is also something about that term ‘green’ which strikes a chord with the Dutch: manifesting itself in their gardens and art, embodied in their lucrative horticultural industry, and celebrated this year in the World Horticultural Expo (or ‘Floriade’) in Venlo in the south-eastern corner of the country.

There have been Floriades since 1960, leaving behind legacies of beautiful urban parks in cities such as Rotterdam. A central theme to  all of them has been a celebration of, and reconnection with, landscape  in its broadest sense. This year’s 66 hectare festival continues this ambition with its motto of ‘Be part of the theatreof nature, get closer to the quality of life’. Florid perhaps, but it encapsulates the organiser’s wish to explain how important horticulture is to quality of life. Additionally, the Floriade ‘stands for innovation and the sustainable relationship between man and nature’, a statement of particular commercial resonance in Venlo and its region. Indeed, one of the Floriade’s most compelling achievements is the way it pragmatically illustrates how competing demands for space from agribusiness and ecology can be accommodated and then encourages a sort of sensory, immersive experience by way of explanation.

The experiential nature of the Floriade is expressed strongly in the design of the masterplan. Created by ARCADIS and Copijn, the cellular design preserves blocks of existing woodland, which then frame and contain five ‘theme-fields’, each with a contrasting landscape expression and ambience. These are ‘Environment’ (town squares and urban green); ‘Green Engine’ (horticulture and industry); ‘Relax and Heal’ (sensual and organic landscapes); ‘Education and Innovation’ (perspectives and visual trickery); and ‘World Stage’ (colour and theatrics).

The different zones are very effectively framed by the woods, which also help give secrecy and seclusion within a site packed with programmes and events. It is these pieces of retained landscape that give the Floriade its most compelling character. The woods help connect the visitor to the wider landscape and prevent the theme-fields from blurring into one another; whereas the edges of the site where the local heathland or wetlands are allowed to intrude are evocative and romantic. The Floriade’s bolder design moves are by far the most memorable, and stand out from the festival ephemera, which have a tendency to overwhelm. For instance, the spine of themed urban gardens have myriad design ideas and are beautifully scaled; the gently curving balancing lake with its amphitheatre is delightful and alive with dragonflies and frogs, while the angled green planes and pleached trees in the Education and Innovation zone create some surreal prospects.

Interestingly, it is some of the architectural pieces which provide the highlights: Jon Kristinsson’s Villa Flora is informed by horticultural technology and with its dramatic 30m tall glass sections and parabolic roofs creates an inspiring building which embodies much of the spirit of the Floriade. Additionally, Jo Coenen’s 70m tall Innovatoren forms a dramatic beacon into the site, while the Dutch government’s own marquee, framed by slanting lawns and carefully set into the ground, has the appearance of a large orange seed about to burst. Plenty of cleverly conceived individual gardens and spaces stand out but my favourite was Limburg artist Sjer Jacobs’ sculpture garden with its grotesque semi-buried figures overgrown with moss and ferns emerging out of the ground, reminiscent of the fantastic creatures of the Sacro Bosco in Italy.

Overall, the Floriade is a successful amalgam of theatre and landscape: pragmatic and celebratory and with a particularly Dutch sense of fun and light-heartedness. Nevertheless, such a result belies the serious philosophy behind it: what the organisers call the ‘Venlo Principles’, which are interesting to contrast with the GI ambitions described earlier.

The idea is that development should not involve loss of quality or negative consequences with three resulting rules: waste is food; sunlight is energy; and there must be respect for diversity. Devised by an architect and a chemist, these principles (sometimes termed ‘Cradle-to-Cradle’) have attempted to reconcile often conflicting, complex planning issues while maintaining economic realism and measurable results. The Venlo Principles
are a more streamlined (and achievable) version of the GI approach, but go to the heart of the Dutch landscape tradition, which recognises that any created landscape is the work of many hands.

Longterm, the majority of the Floriade is retained and becomes the Venlo Green Park, a centre of excellence in sustainable agribusiness at the core of one of Europe’s largest contiguous horticultural areas. Development of more environmentally responsible technologies and husbandry will be central to activities here once the festival moves on, while the infrastructure allows for existing ecological, cultural and historic land patterns to be enhanced and their access and enjoyment promoted and funded. How appropriate, that a flower show advertises all these benefits.

Peter Sheard is a landscape architect and a senior associate with Gensler, London     

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