A slice of greenery in the city

One 'solution-driven' plant retailer is bringing green walls and balconies to Amsterdam's crowded buildings, says Gavin McEwan.

Space is at a premium in Amsterdam and green roofs are increasingly popular - image: Urban Green
Space is at a premium in Amsterdam and green roofs are increasingly popular - image: Urban Green

With its narrow upright townhouses pressed against sedate canals and bustling alleys, downtown Amsterdam does not seem the most obvious place to open a garden centre. But Urban Green has its sights set on a whole new customer base that the industry has so far largely overlooked - style-conscious, green-minded townies.

The concept is to provide "the products, solutions and advice you need to turn your balcony, roof terrace or city garden into a green oasis," the company says, while also supplying flowers, pots and plants for the interior.

Its first outlet, in a converted church at the west end of the city's famous Vondelpark, opened in late August. "People's reactions so far have been very enthusiastic," says co-founder and director Mark Van der Geest. "Garden centres are product-driven. Here we are solution-driven."

One of a team of four behind Urban Green, Van der Geest has worked as a retail architect for 25 years. His MVDG practice has advised retailers in many markets, including the GroenRijk garden centre franchise, which has 46 outlets across the Netherlands. "I started to work on (the Urban Green concept) with them, but as a franchise they were not really able to take on new concepts," he says.

"I then talked about it with an investor friend of mine, Hubert Thijs, who had his own solar cell factory - I told him we had to do this ourselves. But we needed other people too, such as a florist to provide knowledge that we don't have."

He sees the format as a response to trends not only locally, but also worldwide. "More people are living in cities all over the world, including the Netherlands and we know urbanisation will go on," he says.

"Then there is the tendency toward greener, more sustainable living. These might almost be seen as in opposition to each other. But people want their cities to be green, and so far there has been a lack of propositions in that field."

A long-time resident of Amsterdam himself, he says: "I used to have a balcony, but no one could advise me what to put on it. Here, we show you how to cope with a balcony that's in shadow for three-quarters of the day - we look for solutions for that. Some shops will have potted shrubs but no one is bringing it all together like this."

And a population of 800,000 makes for a considerable base of potential urban customers with space problems. Van der Geesr adds: "They like what the city has to offer, and won't go out of it unless they have to - they would prefer to buy what they need right here, But there are no real garden centres in the city, the vast majority are all on the outskirts."

Council and community support

Urban Green's most striking divergence from conventional garden centres is its in-store promotion of green walls, green roofs and roof terraces. "We have different service levels, from simple advice on what to do with your balcony, through to a full design-and-build service," he says.

"There is less potential for green roofs in Amsterdam than in other cities in Europe, but there are still quite a few on private and commercial buildings. And the city has been promoting them - you can get a 50 per cent subsidy." Indeed the company will talk customers through the process of claiming any subsidies that are available.

Above the store is a small office where local greening projects can be discussed. "Business people are coming in to ask about the roofs of their hotels or office car parks - there's already a lot going on," he says, adding that the company works with nearby green roof specialists De Dakdokters ("the Roof Doctors") to provide full installation and maintenance to their customers.

As well as green roofs, green walls are also being promoted by the city authorities, he adds. "In the last three years there have been five or six green wall systems which have come on to the market in the Netherlands." So far Urban Green provides the Sempergreen systems of ready-grown ivy-clad panels. "It's not do-it-yourself - the point is that we can easily bring it to you."

For city gardeners, Urban Green aims to harness the grow-your-own trend, selling fruit trees and bushes that are suitable for confined spaces, and even grow-your-own mushroom kits, which require neither daylight nor much room.

Space is also an issue for the company itself. Having minimal room for outdoor plant displays, Van der Geest says: "We try to find a good rotation inside, partly to keep plants healthy. Strong plants are necessary in an urban environment anyway and we have to find what's best for our customers."

The floristry offering by the door focuses on what is described as "a pure, natural style", with a subscription service available to provide both domestic and corporate customers with a weekly floristry service.

"We would also like to start communities here, for people who love gardening, to help each other out with advice on growing vegetables and herbs," he adds. "It's something you see talked about in all the magazines - people are more interested in where food comes from, they worry about it more, and want to try growing their own."

Sourcing plants for the outdoors and inside is less straightforward than it might seem, even in the Netherlands, he says. "There is already a lot of green industry in this country, but it's on a larger scale - most of the production growers look for big clients to supply. We need small-scale, high-quality suppliers, but if you are not big, it's hard to find good quality. It's a bit like the situation with food and supermarkets."

Giving cactus plants as an example, he says: "We have one grower who will supply us with small volumes of high-quality plants. We have to build up more suppliers like that, but going out in the country looking for them is time-consuming to do."

Making a new concept work

Now, like more conventional garden centres, Urban Green is into its Christmas season. "Starting when we did, we weren't able to buy in seasonal stock in the traditional way, but now there is almost no alternative to low-quality Chinese stuff," says Van der Geest. "Instead we've gone for a more 'green', plant-based range that you might say is even more traditional, although we've gone for a more contemporary rather than rustic look."

But by February, he says, "It will all be outdoor lines again, particularly fruit, vegetables and herbs. We want the store to feel different every six weeks or so."

He believes Urban Green's unusual premises help it stand out in the customer's mind. The church building, known as the Schinkelkerk, was converted in the 1970s into, of all things, a diving school - which entailed the construction of an upper floor. "The diving business then went off to places like Egypt, which is where we came in," says Van der Geest.

"We looked for interesting architecture, something with character, and as much light as possible." Inside, he has gone for a look that he describes as "industrial non- design" with concrete floors and unfinished metal worktops. "It makes the whole thing understandable, it shows the customer that it's outside stuff. And it keeps the product as the centre of attention - you don't want to compete with it."

As for the location of the store, he says: "We don't have to be in a prime retail site. You can be in a residential neighbourhood, though you want to be on the main street within it. And the current economic environment means there are more opportunities of this sort."

He admits that the Europe-wide downturn means it's "not the best time to be opening a new store", but adds: "If you wait until times are better, it could be too late. And the green sector is one area that isn't shrinking - it has grown over the last two years. People are spending more time at home, which means more plants and pots. It's still a growing market."

Urban Green has caught the attention of the Dutch media, including the national press, but more locally the company has publicised the store with flyers in the neighbourhood. "The number of people who know about the concept is growing," he adds.

And this will be just the first of many, he claims. "We are already pursuing another site on the east side of Amsterdam, and are looking to do something like this in other European cities - we certainly haven't seen it anywhere else already. But we are convinced it's possible."

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