Interior rendering for Swale (courtesy Mary Mattingly, 2015)

Rendering for Swale, the floating food forest designed for the New York Harbor (courtesy Mary Mattingly)

New York City was once identified as much by tall ships as tall buildings — Walt Whitman celebrated it in his “Manhatta” (1860) as “The beautiful city, the city of hurried and sparkling waters! / the city of spires and masts!” Today it is a city that mostly looks inward, away from the shores, despite the public space opportunities of its harbor and rivers. Artist Mary Mattingly is interested in encouraging more public interaction with the waterways in her new project “Swale.” Planned to launch in spring of next year, it is an “itinerant food forest” floating on an island of repurposed shipping containers.

“It’s important for this project to function in public space,” Mattingly told Hyperallergic. “Public space in New York is very limited, so in this case we are working towards creating more access to a public space that has limited accessibility.”

Mattingly has explored mobile, nautical art before, including the “Waterpod” (2009) and “Wetland” (2014), both of which were self-sustaining spaces that involved agricultural components. “Swale” is supported by the Rolin Foundation and A Blade of Grass as one of their 2015 recipients for their Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art. The project also involves significant collaboration with community organizations and local schools. Students at Dwight-Englewood School in New Jersey are helping to build the garden beds for the 50-foot-wide floating platform that will support the food forest.

Rendering of the floating food forest (courtesy Swale)

Students at Dwight-Englewood School working on the garden beds for the floating food forest (courtesy Swale)

While it’s still in the planning process, “Swale” is expected to visit different piers in the five boroughs, inviting the public onboard to harvest food from its roving orchard and participate in the cultivation of the edible plants. On-board technologies will purify some of the pollution in the rivers and harbor to nourish the trees and other agriculture.

“A lot of what has been driving me is overconsumption and its inherent violence,” Mattingly explained. “I want to further understand the inputs to and outputs from a city like New York, where the goods we consume are harvested from or mined, processed, transported from, and then buried after use.”

The shipping containers intended to form the vessel are from the Port of New York and New Jersey, so reuse is built into the structure as well as its function. By promoting thought on independent food sources, Mattingly hopes visitors can consider “experimental zones that can be both interdependent and autonomous.” And if it were permanent, she suggests that the waterway-fed vegetation grown perennially could support any number of small-scale industries from medicinal plants to mushrooms.

As Mattingly stated: “I believe projects like this can be proposals for alternative ways of coping, and also interrogate these cycles of inputs and outputs, predatory economics, and the violence inherent in consumption, as we look for other ways to co-exist.”

Swale map in progress (design by Casey Tang)

SCABU (Shipping Container as Barge Flotation) design (created by Nautical Engineers Martin Ottaway and Barr Turner for Swale)

Swale is planned to launch in spring of 2016 on the New York waterways. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...