With Floating Farm, New York Looks to the Future of Public Parks

With Floating Farm, New York Looks to the Future of Public Parks

With Floating Farm, New York Looks to the Future of Public Parks

Public foraging farms are sprouting up from coast to coast, but one, in New York, has an especially ambitious social mission.

by Nikki Ekstein

March 31, 2017, 9:44 AM CDT March 31, 2017, 12:36 PM CDT

If you always thought Central Park needed more edible plants, you're in luck.

Come April, a farm full of fruit trees and other crops will float to locations in three New York City boroughs, and visitors will be invited to enjoy nature by literally picking, snipping, and sowing to their hearts' content. Located on a 5,000-square-foot barge, "Swale" will include 4,000 square feet of solar-powered growing space, including a perennial garden, an aquaponics area, and an apple orchard sponsored by Heineken USA's Strongbow Apple Ciders atop a large man-made hill. (The hill allows deeper root space for fruiting trees.)

The project will be open to the public, but it’s more interactive exhibit than floating Central Park; only 75 people can board at once, and docents will usher guests around the grounds. Free educational workshops will include “painting with plants” and “dying natural fabrics,” and volunteers will always be on hand to explain how thoughtful permaculture planning can create a virtually self-sustaining farm.

Waterpod, a predecessor to Swale, docked in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2009.

Photographer: Michael Nagle

But founder Mary Mattingly’s goals go far beyond providing city dwellers with a high-design place to forage for mushrooms in their next attempt at Beef Bourgignon.

She wants to make people work harder for public spaces, and public spaces work harder for people. She wants to create a model for sustainable urban farming. She wants to create an educational space. And she wants to eradicate the problem of food deserts in blighted urban neighborhoods.

“We don’t have much access to stewardship in New York City,” Mattingly told Bloomberg, “so we wanted to highlight and cultivate opportunities around that idea. People care for spaces that they can pick food from.”

That's exactly what appealed to the approving committee at the New York City Parks Department. "We are trying to prioritize community engagement," said Bram Gunther, co-director of the Urban Field Station, who cited a growing field of study that believes that community involvement, empowerment, and land management must all go hand in hand. "This project will act like a magnet, in a way, and inspire people to civic action," he added. 

A rendering of Swale, the floating forest coming soon to New York.   Source: Swale

That's exactly Mattingly's plan. Eventually, she hopes community investment (and city grants) will take the project from floating farm to philanthropic powerhouse. She’d like to use it as a springboard to raise awareness of such food deserts as Hunts Point in New York's South Bronx, where, Mattingly says, “10,000 trucks pass through each day, and everyone has asthma, and nobody has access to fresh food.” In her perfect world, Swale becomes a conduit to a public park in the Bronx, where “people could pick food 24 hours a day.”

Here’s the only issue with that: Public policy in New York makes that kind of project legally impossible—or close to it—as it currently stands. And on a trial run last summer, Swale barely raised enough funds to keep itself going for a second season. Its manifestation this year in the East River was made possible by the partnership with Strongbow, which has made it a brand pillar to conserve and create orchards around the world. Before Mattingly can sustain entire neighborhoods, she’ll need to sustain Swale itself.

There’s reason to believe in the project, though. First, there’s Mattingly’s own record: In 2009, she spent half a year creating and living aboard a fully self-sustained ecosystem on a barge in New York, which partially inspired the Swale project.

Then there’s the success of other so-called “food farms” around the country.

In Hawaii, the Malama Kauai Food Forest supplies several underserved schools and food banks—to the tune of 37,000 pounds of fruit and 1,000 volunteer hours in the last two and a half years. In North Carolina, the George Washington Carver Edible Park anchored a major urban revitalization project near downtown Asheville, replacing a trash-filled lot with a natural source for plums, figs, chestnuts, and pawpaws, among other things. The list extends to MassachusettsColoradoAlaskaSeattle, and beyond.

With the exception of a nascent project in London, no other food forest has cropped up in such an urban setting. Certainly, no other initiative has as striking a design. So Swale should drum up interest. And with an advocate like Mattingly at its helm, converting interest into action should be a real possibility. Even if she fails to create her public farm in the South Bronx, she will likely open up a dialogue that can lead to lasting public policy impacts. 

And let's not ignore the twin goal of creating public stewards, which Gunther says is what he most looks forward to seeing. "The benefits start with people going to Swale and thinking about it—being more aware. Others will be inspired to come out each weekend and take care of their park or advocate for it." Over time, it's something that he thinks will come to represent "an evolution of more sophisticated community engagement in the New York City parks system."

Will Mattingly sail her concept elsewhere? Maybe. “People have approached us about using our plans in other cities,” she said, “but the scope of that seems pretty big for us right now.”

At least, one thing is for sure: There’s never been a more interesting way to treat your winter doldrums.

Nikki Ekstein@nikkiekstein

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