A Push Against Power: Swale
In 2016, artist Mary Mattingly was working on a permaculture project called Concrete Plant Park, intended to re-establish salt marshes along the South Bronx riverbanks in order to revitalize the abandoned site. However, the project hit a road block when it came to the development of a community garden.
The laws and policies established by the City of New York, to be enforced on public properties, demand that no citizens “deface, write upon, sever, mutilate, kill, or remove from the ground any plants, flowers, shrubs, or other vegetation,” including trees, without the permission of the Commissioner. This effectively prohibits anyone from picking the fruits and vegetables grown there, even for their own consumption.
Frustrated, Mattingly started seeking out alternatives – and turned to the old barge at the concrete park’s pier, which was once used for hauling sand to construction sites. With funding provided by A Blade of Grass, she began the process of converting the barge into a “floating” food forest. The vegetation on the barge would be immune to the city’s restrictive policies, and since the barge could be moved between piers, the food forest would be able to provide education and free, fresh produce to additional communities – reaching more people who struggle with limited access to these important resources.
Inspired by permaculture, edible forestry, and salt-tolerant estuary ecosystems, the garden includes a variety of perennial native fruit trees and shrubs, leafy self-seeding annuals, and salt loving grasses. Mattingly incorporated permaculture techniques to ensure that the forest would be sustainable and self-sufficient – and uses the site to teach the public about these practices.
“People are surprised by a lot of the things we’ve been growing on board, to be perfectly honest,” said Amanda McDonald Crowley, community outreach coordinator with Swale. “Lots of neighbourhood people haven’t ever seen apples growing on an apple tree, or a persimmon growing in this climate.”
Swale is the first “test case” of a food forest available to the public as an open resource, and citizens are encouraged to sustainably manage and care for this resource through knowledge, trust, and teamwork. The purpose of the project is to “strengthen stewardship of public waterways and land, while working to shift policies that will increase the presence of edible perennial landscapes.”
“From the moment I stepped foot onto the barge, I was amazed,” said Naseem Haamid, lead youth organizer with Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, a local organization that has partnered with Swale. “My life began to change every day as I learned more about the plants, as I learned about the water filtration system, as I learned about permaculture. It’s a holistic thing – it’s education, it’s art, it’s culture.”
Through Swale, Mattingly hopes to advocate for the development of additional food forests across the 30,000 acres of public land available in New York City, “through urban stewardship initiatives led by community partners in the South Bronx.”
“What would it look like in our cities if food were a public service, and not just an expensive commodity?” McDonald Crowley said. “That really is our long-term goal.”
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Originally Published: https://worldwidepermaculture.com/swale-food-forest-on-a-new-york-river/