New York City's newest urban farm will look a little different from most: instead of factory-like rows of plants growing in a warehouse, it will be a lush, natural-looking food forest that floats down the Hudson River in a barge.
As it docks at local piers this summer—stopping at each pier for at least two weeks—New Yorkers will be able to get on, wander around, and pick free food.
The farm-as-art-project, called Swale, is on the water for a few reasons. The first is practical. Food forests are a type of community garden that mimics a natural landscape, and that anyone can freely harvest. Though they exist in a few other places, such as Seattle, they're illegal on land in New York City. But by putting Swale in the Hudson River, the artists who created it were able to sidestep that regulation.
Because it's on a boat, it can also easily travel around the city, making the group's case that food forests would be a good addition to the urban landscape—healthy food as a free public service.
"First and foremost, the barge can move from place to place so more people can have access to it," says Mary Mattingly, the artist who initiated the project. "It highlights the waterways as a commons—as a space that needs to be cared for and in turn can care for us."
The design, an 80-by-30-foot floating platform made from shipping containers, will also make use of the water. If it doesn't rain for a long time, Swale will use a custom system to suck up river water, desalinate and purify it with marsh plants and two large filters, and then finally use the clean water to irrigate the plants.
Like other food forests, Swale will be planted in a mini-ecosystem that's somewhat self-sufficient. The barge will grow more than 80 species of trees and plants, from wild ginger and raspberries to asparagus and arugula.
Everything will grow in soil, in contrast to the hydroponic growing systems used at most indoor or rooftop urban farms. "We really believe in soil-based growing systems wherever they can be had," says Mattingly. "It eliminates need for extra electrical energy, nutrient solutions, algae management, and so forth. It never crossed our mind to use hydroponics when our structure can support the weight of soil, and need less maintenance because of that. We are focused on growing systems that require minimal human intervention, due to their longevity."
As the barge docks, it will work with each neighborhood to promote the idea of food forests on land. "While Swale moves from pier to pier, we are working to establish permanent food forests at stops along Swale's route on public land," she says. "So for instance, we are working with Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx to establish a permanent food forest on their city-owned land."
Ultimately, Mattingly and the artists and organizations she has partnered with hope to change city policy. "We believe the time is now to inspire transitional economies that include fresh and healthy food as a public service, not just an expensive commodity," Mattingly says. "We believe that there is a place at the table for art that is active, experiential, and a service itself."
Swale launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the final funds needed to finish the barge, and plans to launch in June.