A provocative public artwork and a floating edible landscape, Swale was built atop a barge that was once used for hauling sand to construction sites. Challenging city policies that prohibit foraging practices inside public land—growing or picking food on New York’s public land has been illegal for almost a century—Swale utilised marine common law in order to circumvent local public land-based laws. Closed during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Swale’s next iteration is currently being designed in Brooklyn, ready to continue shifting policies and inviting more people to expand the uses of public land.
Swale, 2017, courtesy of Mary Mattingly
KOOZYou define yourself as an interdisciplinary artist. Could you expand on what this means to you and how this has and continues to shape your practice?
MM Interdisciplinary action involves anti-silo learning or acknowledging the capacity to learn across disciplines. It also means working between various fields of practice that might involve art, science, architecture, biotechnology, agroforestry, or soil research, to name some.
Developing more local options for access to free fresh food was the biggest impetus.
KOOZ In 2016 you founded the project Swale, a provocative public artwork and a floating edible landscape built atop a barge that was once used for hauling sand to construction sites before it was re-purposed for growing food. The project has since traveled to numerous public piers in New York City and hosted 205,000 visitors, over 800 guided tours, 75 school field trips, 50 free public programs, and 38 Summer Youth Employees who could each harvest herbs, fruits, and vegetables for free. What prompted the project?
MM Developing more local options for access to free fresh food was the biggest impetus. Personally, I learned I had celiac disease and fresh foods were too expensive to be continually purchased. However, I grew up in a place where it was common to forage and grow food. Foraging food from plants grown on New York City’s public land has been off-limits for almost a century for multiple reasons, including the fear that a glut of foragers may destroy fragile ecosystems. Swale used the common law of the water as a loophole to do what had been illegal on public land, since a food forest built on the water can follow a different set of rules. It's important to note that while there are about 100 acres of robust community garden space, there are 30,000 acres of public land in NYC. On Swale, visitors who harvest perennial fruits and vegetables are also invited to care for the space.
Swale used the common law of the water as a loophole to do what had been illegal on public land, since a food forest built on the water can follow a different set of rules.
KOOZ In the summer of 2016, Swale landed at Concrete Plant Park in the South Bronx, one of the largest food deserts in the United States. Could you expand a bit more on what a food desert is and how, through urban stewardship initiatives led by community partners in the South Bronx, the project sought to enhance the quality and responsible use of public waterways and land?
MM A food desert is defined by the 2008 Farm Bill as an “area in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower-income neighborhoods and communities.” On the Bronx River, Swale was run by a group of young people through the NY State Summer Youth Employment Program (NYS SYEP). Swale relied on neighbors at docking locations to build up and exchange practical knowledge sets around soil, water, and the edible and medicinal qualities of local, diverse perennial plants. The more people get involved, the more Swale gains relevancy as a tool for lasting change within the city. Multiple groups now support expanding uses for public parks. In 2017, New York City (in part) repealed an ordinance that regarded foraging as the destruction of property and launched its first “Foodway” in Concrete Plant Park in the Bronx. The “Foodway” is now a place where anyone can come twenty-four hours a day and pick fresh foods for free. Swale continues to work on shifting policies that will increase the presence of edible public lands. We do so through petitions and by instigating stewardship groups for local parks. Building pathways to create public food in public spaces strengthens the right that everyone should have to healthy food.
The more people get involved, the more Swale gains relevancy as a tool for lasting change within the city.
KOOZThe project is pioneering an alternate model of community-based food production which has at its core the ambition of building regenerative ecosystems. What role can the arts play in engaging the local citizen in initiatives which are structured around both ecological and social regeneration?
MM The UN acknowledges there are an estimated 2 billion people around the world whose livelihoods and lives depend on access to commons-managed water, farmland, fisheries, and forests. Their governance systems are characterised by reciprocity, resource pooling, and stewardship. It is this idea that I think needs to shape more and more urban spaces, as, from experience, caring for a place together gives me more agency, a deep love for the land and opens me up to different forms of reciprocity. I’m not an expert in commons, but I use the word to denote a more immediate governance system, where those who rely upon (in this case) a particular place are also directly involved in its governance.
In a vibrant commons, people have a vital role to play not only as beneficiaries, but also as co-creators, protectors, and decision-makers.
Swale followed traditional ecological knowledge and the insights of social scientist Elinor Ostrom who claimed that, in a vibrant commons, people have a vital role to play not only as beneficiaries, but also as co-creators, protectors, and decision-makers. Swale could model alternative space and request involvement from city residents to share in caretaking and foraging. It relied upon partnerships with community groups and individuals in each place it docked.
KOOZFollowing its closure throughout the pandemic, the new iteration of Swale is being designed as a more permanent structure. What are your aspirations for the project in this new iteration?
MM The next floating structure should combine information we’ve gathered about different foods people want to forage. It should also combine a platform that addresses floodwater inundation with more contemplative elements of a public park. People can access the larger metaphors of movement and time through the smells, tastes, sounds, and the stories these lively elements tell.
KOOZHow and to what extent could you foresee the project expanding beyond New York to other cities and ecosystems?
MM Barges with maintained ecosystems have multiple uses in any waterfront city. They can be educational, they can look to forms of farming with floodwater inundation. They can extend the land, adding more garden space which aids in the regenerative potential of urban ecosystems. Multiple barges can each function differently completing different socio-ecosystemic services.
Mary Mattingly is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York. She is known for bundling personal objects into large boulders for performances about consumption and for large-scale public artwork. Examples include Limnal Lacrimosa, Vanishing Point, the Waterpod, and Swale. Swale is an edible landscape on a barge in New York City. Docked at public piers but following waterways common laws, Swale circumnavigates New York's public land laws, allowing anyone to pick free fresh food. Swale instigated and co-created the "Foodway" in 2017. The "Foodway" is the first time New York City Parks is allowing people to publicly forage in over 100 years.