Swale: New York’s Floating Food Forest

A free food forest is floating through New York City’s food deserts. Swale is a public ‘food forest’ on a 130 by 40 foot barge, and it is exempt from the ordinance that makes growing and foraging illegal.

By Lars van Tol

New York City has a hundred-year-old law that forbids people from possessing gardening tools in a public park. The ordinance also prohibits the ‘abuse’ of any plant (including trees) in parks, which is loosely-defined but includes harvesting the products of food-bearing plants. Picking a publicly grown apple could get you 6 months in prison or a fine up to $15,000. Naturally, this state of affairs has raised some eyebrows.

Visual artist Mary Mattingly found the law somewhat restrictive for a city where, according to city council, food deserts have caused food insecurity for 1.4 million people. In 2009, concerned with food security in an era of environmental uncertainty and fledgling community, Mattingly designed and debuted the Waterpod, a floating sculpture made from reclaimed material that doubled as a self-sufficient habitat.

The Waterpod was as environmental as it was social—its 5 inhabitants farmed their own food, created art, purified river water, and for 6 months lived a nomadic life in New York’s waterways. It was an homage to the Hudson river, and a work of sustainable art in its own right. Waterpod was also a rebuke to dependence on the global supply chain, and an example of how waterways might be used as a communal space, and contribute to food security.

Urban food security is strongly concerned with food deserts: areas where a population does not have access to fresh food. There may be convenience stores and bodegas, and canned and fast food, in the neighbourhood, but few fresh or nutritious options. Deprived of choice, communities face the problems of unhealthy eating and its associated diseases. Poverty compounds the issue and makes it intractable.

So Mary Mattingly’s 2016 project, Swale, was an elaboration of the Waterpod project, response to the public parks ordinance, and an example of how food deserts might be addressed. Swale is a public ‘food forest’ on a 130 by 40 foot barge, and it is exempt from the ordinance that makes growing and foraging illegal. So Mattingly and a team of volunteers filled it with edible plants and visited piers around the city, attracting over 60,000 visitors.

For the 2017 season, the Swale project was low on funding and nearly went under, but a partnership with Strongbow kept it afloat. The landscape on the barge was improved and integrated, and an apple grove was added. Collaboration with the NYC Department of Parks led to additional plant varieties and a low hill. In total, about 200 varieties of plants were added, including crowd pleasers such as blueberries and strawberries. An onboard desalinator/purifier kept everything watered, and the use of specific perennials conditioned the soil to reduce the need for fertilizers. Finally, there’s a small greenhouse that doubles as a performance space and workshop.

Public involvement is essential to the project: Swale is non-profit and visitors are allowed and encouraged to forage, pick, and eat. The goal is education, to get people excited about the possibilities of public space and develop a sense of stewardship and ownership, and also to get people thinking about the benefits of productive public spaces. And a policy victory has already been won: the NYC Department of Parks announced their intention to develop a public food forest on land.

Swale is about more than challenging outdated laws and bringing about policy reform. Mary Mattingly also intended it as an inspiration for cities around the world to make better use of their waterways to create more public spaces. Food is an excellent starting point: it brings people together and can be a foundation for more engaged and safer communities. Floating a food forest, and bringing it directly to food deserts, is an amazing starting point for healthier, more productive cities.