Mary Mattingly wants to reimagine New York City as a place where tomatoes and raspberry bushes populate Central Park—where fresh, healthy, local food is available to everyone, not just those who can afford it. “City parks have a lot of room to grow tomatoes, raspberries, fruit trees,” she says. “We want the city to think about replacing the ornamentals with plants people can actually eat.” Her goal is free food for all—using public land and public money to feed the public.
It’s an ambitious goal. To draw attention to it, Mattingly is working on an ambitious project: a giant, floating community garden. The barge, called Swale, will float in New York City’s rivers starting in late June. It will dock in various neighborhoods and offer free, fresh food to anyone who wants to come pick it. Mattingly and her team will to use rainwater and desalinated, decontaminated river water to irrigate the plants. She sees it as a useful example for what could be implemented on land, citywide. Swale will be able to offer pick-your-own beets, Swiss chard, scallions, leeks, berries, cardoons, fennel, grapes and beans, among other crops, to about 300 people a day.
It’s useful shorthand to call Swale a community garden, but it’s actually built on a different agricultural model called a food forest—that’s a diverse array of food-bearing trees, shrubs and plants that are grown together, much like they would in a natural ecosystem. Crops cultivated this way are less labor- and resource-intensive than those grown in traditional agriculture.
Right now, there’s one big obstacle: an antique law that forbids growing food for public consumption on public land. Mattingly would like that law repealed. Still, the idea of New York City cultivating food for its residents seems pretty unlikely. But Mattingly points out that the city is already planting plants all the time: Why not switch to food-bearing varieties?
“The people we’ve talked to at New York City parks, they’re excited about it,” Mattingly says. “But it’s like, ‘Well, you don’t understand all the issues.’ But I think we do. And Swale will be a concrete example of how to make it work.”
If you’d like to donate to Swale, you can do so through the New York Foundation for the Arts.