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June 14, 2016updated 02 Aug 2021 9:05am

An artist is floating a “food forest” on a barge around New York state

By Adam Born

There’s no question that both our cities, and the population within them, are becoming larger. Much has been made of the need for education about healthy lifestyles and diet to help combat a growing public health emergency. But how best can we access food, particularly fresh and healthy produce, in increasingly dense urban centres?

It’s an issue that artist Mary Mattingly is keen to explore. And her latest New York project, Swale, a floating “food forest”, aims to inspire just such a conversation.

A leased barge, measuring in at 120 x 30 feet, will provide the foundation for a forest growing a range of produce. Whilst touring piers around New York state for six months, the forest will accommodate up to 300 people per day coming aboard, exploring and foraging for anything from herbs, berries and kale to kiwis.

On board the barge. Image: Swale/T. Craig Sinclair.

The project is partly inspired by the growing urban agriculture movement found in New York City, now home to the largest rooftop farms in the world. From what was once a hobby for a few keen enthusiasts, this expansion has been supported by grassroots movements, volunteering and municipal programs.

One of the goals of Swale is to get people involved with these ventures, and to encourage their continued growth from the bottom up. “We have a lot of urban farms here that are not really protected,” says Mattingly. “They’re farmed until real estate takes over. So I think that trying to assert the public nature of this –that food is a service and not just a commodity – would be a win, for me.”

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In an effort to inspire discussion and involvement, Swale will host community and outreach events at each of the six piers it is scheduled to visit. In July and August, for example, Biome Arts will be leading workshops that introduce visitors to the different species on board and discuss community-based renewable energy sources, amongst other topics. There will also be poets and performers giving exhibitions; Swale is, primarily, an art installation. “This is experiential,” says Mattingly “and to me, art is always experiential.”

Yet even as an art project, usually able to skirt some regulations, acquiring the necessary licenses and permits has been difficult. Mattingly had hoped to enhance the project’s sustainable credentials by repurposing shipping containers, welding them shut and joining them to create a barge. While the engineering was sound, gaining the permits required to launch such a vessel took more time than was available – hence the rented barge.

One of the goals of the project is to become a permanent space, perhaps on land, and to be a forerunner to similar installations. But permanency presents other obscure aspects of law to be addressed: foraging is forbidden in much of New York City, and the definitions of public food and public spaces can be tricky.


More floating trees. Image: Swale/T. Craig Sinclair.

The project is undoubtedly ambitious, but Mattingly remains undeterred, “Really what we need to do is not rethink these laws because it’s a neat idea, but because it’s essential.” And it seems that others agree. Everyone from nautical engineers and human rights lawyers to doctors have given their time to Swale, and the project has raised over $32,000 from backers on Kickstarter.

Nonetheless, Mattingly downplays its significance. “I don’t know if anything is ever enough. I think that this could just be the beginning. This is one step in a process that a lot of people are doing work in and are involved in… It’s a symbol.” There’s no doubt that the policy changes and shift in thinking that Swale hopes to set in motion will take time. Urban agriculture has existed for years, and while New York City might be leading the way in some aspects, it still remains a niche topic for most city dwellers.

But involving people in their food procurement and promoting discussion on these topics are a first step. And having a forest float down the Hudson is quite a symbol.

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