Brooklyn being Brooklyn, the borough is no stranger to gardens in unusual places. There are the storied plots behind Roberta’s in Bushwick and the rooftop gardens at the Whole Foods Gowanus and the Brooklyn Navy Yard or you can always head high above Downtown Brooklyn to see the green roof atop the Barclays Center designed to keep the roar of local concerts and sports events to a low hum. In other words, Brooklyn is a pretty green place if you know where to look.
And this summer, when you look toward the waterfront, you’ll see a moveable garden. It’s called Swale and it’s a floating forest on a barge that will be docked at Brooklyn Bridge Park before gradually working its way over to Governor’s Island and North to the Bronx. Along the way, visitors are invited to cross a ferry gangway to board the barge and its pick fruit and edible plants—at no cost.
“Unlike traditional farming and gardening, food forests require less care in the long term,” Mary Mattingly, the artist behind the project, told Brooklyn Based via email. “They don’t have to be replanted each year, and once they are more established, they take care of themselves to a large extent.”
Word of Swale first began circulating late last summer when Mattingly, a graduate of Parsons School of Design and a Yale fellow, spoke with The Observer about her ambitious concept. At the time, the 36-year-old creative was just coming off the success of a “utopic houseboat” project anchored in the Delaware River and had begun working with nautical engineers and landscape architects to develop the idea. Now with the help of her fellow artists and students from Stuyvesant High School, Dwight-Englewood School, and Fairfield University, Swale is well on its way to becoming a reality and a moving statement in the ongoing fight against food deserts.
“We want to ask, what if healthy free food could be a public service instead of an expensive commodity?” says Mattingly. “We see this as a step towards policy change in the city, where on most public land it’s still illegal to grow public, free food, and believe that the benefits outweigh all potential risks that have deterred the city from planting edible perennial plants as part of the urban infrastructure. We hope a future New York can actually include this as part of the city’s public plan in a safe, thoughtful way, and believe the time is right.”
The project draws its name from an originally British term for a low marsh, which is often used to harvest rainwater or conserve soil. And therein lies the science behind Swale, which will have a foundation of wetland greenery capable of sucking up river water, filtering it, and then paying it forward to the edible plants at the surface—including scallions, Asian persimmon trees, rosemary, radicchio, wild arugula, bok choy, Chinese mountain yams, and more than 80 other species—before they’re made available to the public.
And the fun doesn’t stop there: Atop Swale, visitors will find Eco_Hack 2016, “a large-scale eco/social/digital installation and performance series,” measuring 12-by-12 feet that will host everything from dance performances to poetry readings. It is currently being designed by iBiome Arts, a local art collective. And like all the best partnerships in nature, Eco_Hack 2016 and Swale will benefit from a symbiotic relationship.
“We’re putting digital sensors in the plant beds on Swale to gather environmental data like temperature, moisture, pH content, salinity,” Sally Bozzuto, a member of Biome Arts told Brokelyn in March. “Then we will be creating projections that visualize this data, so that you can get an idea of what’s going on with the forest by day by viewing the projections at night time.”
As to the niggling question of legality, Mattingly and Biome Arts have secured tentative permission from the local Coast Guard, which is appropriately wary when it comes to letting New Yorkers do anything even remotely dangerous in the waters surrounding this collection of islands we call home. (Just ask local artist Duke Riley, who back in 2007 was arrested for launching a small submarine into the New York Harbor.) So, to appease the Coast Guard and prevent a Titanic-in-miniature tragedy on the East River, Mattingly and her team have stocked Swale with plenty of life jackets.
“It’s always possible, but highly unlikely that one does sink,” Mattingly told Brokelyn.
All told, the project will cost about $50,000 by the time it is completed. While Swale has secured funding from A Blade of Grass, which provides resources to artists working on projects related to social change, Mattingly says she’s still fundraising. Meanwhile, the members of Biome Arts have launched an Indiegogo campaign with the goal of raising $20,000 to execute Eco_Hack. Once all the pieces fall into place, the sister projects will open to the public on June 28—just in time for the real start of summer in the city—and will hopefully feed New Yorkers for years to come.
“We hope a future New York can actually include Swale as part of the city’s public plan in a safe, thoughtful way,” says Mattingly. “We want the project to not only address common spaces, but to work towards co-creating them.”