An Artist’s Lush Floating Park Is Feeding New Yorkers This Summer

  • Courtesy of Cloud Factory.

    Courtesy of Cloud Factory.

It’s a sunny May afternoon, and artist Mary Mattingly is munching on an apple aboard Swale, a 5,000-square-foot barge that hosts a small-scale pilot project that could allow city parks to become sustainable sites for producing fresh, accessible food.

On the boat, which is billed as a floating food forest, Mattingly is surrounded by blueberry bushes, collard greens, various mints, and persimmon trees, among hundreds of other blooming perennials. Currently docked at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6, it is a stark (though welcome) contrast to the looming Manhattan skyline. In a month’s time, Swale will have become an overflowing oasis of edible plants.

An interactive public art project now in its second year, Swale is open Thursdays through Sundays throughout the summer, allowing visitors to forage food and engage in creative workshops and other community-focused programming. This year it will remain at Brooklyn Bridge Park through June 30th, then move on to Concrete Plant Park in the Bronx, followed by a third, yet to be determined location in the city. And this week, Mattingly’s project officially opens its second season with a celebratory ribbon-cutting in collaboration with the New York City Parks Department.

  • Courtesy of Swale.

    Courtesy of Swale.

“The Parks Department is looking to take more and more ownership of it, and potentially adopt it long-term at a public park, but we’re not to that point yet,” Mattingly says, as we stand on a pebbled path near the barge entrance, with a close collaborator, curator Amanda McDonald Crowley. Mattingly’s goal is for Swale to find a permanent home and for New York City to replicate her model, harvesting perennial edible plants in more parks in the City.

“On Swale, people can come on and just pick food for free—that’s something that can’t happen on public land, yet,” she says.

Yet is the operative word. At the moment, due to liabilities and safety concerns, public parks are not permitted to produce edible plants. Mattingly has been in talks for the past year and a half, to begin to discuss altering these policies; the Parks Department and other city organizations have been considering the issue for some time.

Parks like Brooklyn Bridge Park have edible plants and take people on tours to see them, but consumption is not permitted. Given that the city is home to nearly 30,000 acres of parkland, Mattingly sees a ripe area for change that has the potential for major impact.

This summer the Parks Department is taking steps to test these waters, beginning with land at Concrete Plant Park, where Mattingly originated Swale last year. The city has plans to convert a greenway—a park that is open 24 hours, instead of dawn to dusk—into a foodway, a 24-hour park planted with edible perennials.

  • Courtesy of Swale.

    Courtesy of Swale.

In its first year, while docked at Concrete Plant Park, Governor’s Island, and Brooklyn Bridge Park, Mattingly and her core team of 12 welcomed 60,000 visitors to Swale and put on over 100 public programs. Not only were locals eager to visit on a regular basis, they donated their time and labor, as well as plants.

One woman, who was displaced by Hurricane Sandy and lost her home and garden, went to Swale with packets of seeds, keen to plant them. “I believe that’s how we got melons,” Mattingly says with a smile. (In its first year Swale hosted a variety of plants atypical to the climes of New York City, including avocados.)

The plants are all donations, ranging from small contributions from locals, to major donations from the city, local nurseries, and universities. This year, the Brooklyn Bridge Park leg of the project is sponsored by the hard-cider purveyor Strongbow, which also donated eight apple trees, including one native to Queens. Fellow artists have created interactive works for the barge; the collective Biome Arts built a greenhouse theater for Swale, and Elizabeth Demaray developed a sound installation that identifies the types of music that birds like. Other artists have led workshops and activities—from cord-making and textile-dying to painting classes.

Many of the plants from last year are the same ones you’ll see this year. “We did a rebuild during wintertime and the plants just hibernated. Now they’re blooming again,” Mattingly says. If they had the funding, she notes that it would be possible to greenhouse the barge and keep operations running year long.

  • Courtesy of Swale.

    Courtesy of Swale.

Swale has its roots in Mattingly’s previous work. She points in particular to a 2009 project, Waterpod, a nomadic, sculptural shelter meant to serve as a model for water-based living in the global-warming era. Mattingly was among five people living on the pod, growing food, collecting rainwater, and using solar power, as the structure navigated New York waterways for five months.

When Waterpod docked at Concrete Plant Park, Mattingly began working with the Bronx-based economic development organization Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice. A director there suggested they use perennial edible plants—they’re more sustainable in the long term, less labor-intensive than annuals, and they grow back more robustly in future years.

Growing all the food on Swale requires plenty of water, which is why the barge also needed a sustainable irrigation system. “We can pull up water from the river and run it through a purifier,” Mattingly says. Environmental engineer Liz Lund developed a water filtration system, and a team of engineers devised a desalinator. The entire, bespoke filtration system sits aboard the barge and allows them to use the water on the plants and store it.

“There’s always a fight to keep water a commons, and what we wanted to do was keep on the offense of that fight and say not only is water a commons, but food should be a commons too,” Mattingly explains. With Swale she set out to provide a solution to the question, “How can we consider food in New York City as a common right and a common resource and have spaces that can bring more access to that food?’”

  • Photo by Jason DeCrow. Courtesy of Swale.

    Photo by Jason DeCrow. Courtesy of Swale.

The project has also effectively engaged schools and community organizations. In the Bronx for example, through Mattingly’s relationship with Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, a group of teenagers took on roles as docents, leading tours and workshops; they were paid through the New York City Summer Youth Employment Program.

Also in the Bronx, they won over a group of local fisherman, who were initially reluctant to engage with Swale, annoyed that the barge had encroached on their territory. Over time they came to embrace it. “They’d yell over ‘what herbs have you got? I’ve caught a fish!’” McDonald Crowley recalls.

“That’s what we want,” Mattingly adds. “For people to take ownership in the place where we are.”


—Casey Lesser