Green space is vital to cities: it beautifies, reduces crime rates, and provides a necessary space where harried urban dwellers can sit, look up at the trees, and breathe.
In some places, it also feeds people. Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest sprawls out across seven acres in the southern portion of the Pacific Northewestern city. Volunteers cultivate its rows of trees and shrubs, from which anyone in the community can harvest at will. Since its establishment in 2012, it’s grown “wildly prosperous,” Grist reported. It’s local, sustainable, and charitable: an example of the sharing economy at its peak. Similar plots of edible urban forestry have cropped up in places like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Los Angeles.
This summer, one will arrive in New York, too. But it will look a little different.
Swale, set to launch in June, is, as described on its website, “a collaborative floating food project” —a forest on top of an 80-foot-by-30-foot barge that will drift along New York City’s waterways, docking at various coastal points to let people aboard to harvest Swiss chard, low-bush blueberries, and other fresh produce.
The reason it can’t break ground on dry land, says its developer, the artist Mary Mattingly, is a century-old ordinance forbidding picking or foraging for food on public land. “The law dates from a time around the late 1800s, when a certain ideal of beauty was being established,” Mattingly says. After the establishment of city parks—Central Park in 1857, Prospect Park ten years later—planners were intent on maintaining a sense of order, and feared that enthusiastic foraging would wreck an otherwise-perfect landscape.
What constitutes an ideal public space has since evolved from the decorative to the productive; Swale, Mattingly says, aims to be a functional space if not physically within the city, then attached to it. “We want to show that healthy, fresh food can be a free public service, not just an expensive commodity, and something that for not much work and effort, a city could supply,” she says.
The concept for Swale, Mattingly says, arose from a project she began in 2009, called Waterpod. She and four other people lived for six months on a floating self-sufficient ecosystem, also in the New York City waterways. “I wanted to prove that it’s possible to exist in a way that’s independent from the global supply chain,” Mattingly says. She and her co-residents grew their own food on board, relying on solar power and eggs from the chickens who accompanied them. They would occasionally dock Waterpod at Concrete Plant Park in the Bronx, which is cultivated by a group called Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, who encouraged Mattingly to consider working with perennial plants instead. “We were spending pretty much all of our time farming for our food on board,” she says. Because perennials don’t have to be planted each year, they reduce the need for constant labor.
Mattingly got in touch with the artist and permaculturist Casey Tang, who designed the barge that would become Swale. While Waterpod was an experiment in independence, the goal of Swale, she says, “became figuring out how to be dependent on interdependence.” She reached out to a broad network of community members, artists, engineers, and local students for input and assistance that will continue to be vital to the project as it moves forward.
The success of food forestry initiatives across the country, like the Beacon Food Forest, convinced Mattingly that enthusiasm for community-based supply systems was strong enough to bolster her unconventional approach in New York. Since word of Swale has spread, the artist Karla Singer-Stein has begun working with nurseries in the Tri-State area to grow seedlings for the barge, and more people have emailed Mattingly personally, hoping to get involved.
Swale arose to address the contemporary concerns of food shortage and sustainability in the face of an old restriction; Mattingly hopes that the benefits of the project will eventually convince New York City officials to reconsider the law. But she also believes it’s time to think seriously about how cities can make the most of their waterways. “I think the more people are on the water, the more it can protect us,” she says. “I’m definitely pushing to view these spaces in different ways, in ways that could provide the food that cities need.”