Last year, artist Mary Mattingly embarked on a bold idea: to draw New Yorkers’ attention to the idea of food as commons rather than commodity. She wanted us to take a look at our local food system and reconsider food as something not only to be shared among the public but to be grown and stewarded by the community in public spaces. Enter Swale: a barge that once shuttled sand to construction sites and that now harbors soil in its hold, yielding a food forest.
With 30,000 acres of public lands, New York City has ample space to provide its residents this opportunity. One problem. It’s against the law here to grow food on public land. The law, however, says nothing about growing food on public waters.
Described as a “human-made ecosystem,” a food forest takes its cue from nature and grows plants in mutually beneficial combination. The classic example of this is the Native American “three sisters,” where corn, squash and beans grow together; the corn provides a structure for the beans to climb, the beans provide nitrogen for the other crops and the squash give ground cover that prevents weeds and helps the soil retain moisture. Following this principle, Swale grows apple trees, herbs, shrubs, fruits and vegetables, together in symbiotic combination.
The business model for Swale likewise relies on symbiotic relationships for maximum sustainability of the project, partnering with schools, nonprofits, private companies and city agencies. Since it dropped anchor in Brooklyn in late April, the barge has hosted numerous class tours for schoolchildren, lectures and workshops for adults. And despite its obvious skirting of the law, Swale has received tremendous support from the city. With, among other things, the parks department providing funding for its next stop: Concrete Plant Park in the Bronx, where it will reside through September with a focus on foodways.
Until then, the good ship Swale can be found floating at Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, open to the public to visit, forage, volunteer and learn through the end of June.