In the shadows of faded rust-red silos and conveyors that for decades mixed concrete on the shores of the Bronx River waterfront, a city park is now at the forefront of a healthy food revival.
Swale, a floating food forest created by Brooklyn artist Mary Mattingly, debuted at Concrete Plant Park a year ago and returned in early July, transported by tugboat from Pier 6 off Brooklyn Bridge Park, where it was previously moored, at the end of June.
The green space rests atop a 130-by-40- foot barge filled with edible and medicinal plants, with trails made of gravel and wood chips traversing it. Guests are encouraged to pick as much as they want on the parcel for free.
The artist says her motivation is to draw attention to the lack of fresh produce in neighborhoods like the South Bronx, and to show the city that public parks can be part of the solution.
“The difference between community garden space and public park space in New York City is huge,” said Mattingly. “Yet we have food deserts everywhere and fresh food is too expensive to buy, and there is this resource that can be used in many different ways.”
There are just 32 acres of community garden land in the city, compared to more than 30,000 acres of public park land, according to the NYC parks website. Although community gardens are meant to be harvested, most require membership. A city ordinance makes it illegal to forage or pick plants in public parks, but Mattingly found a loophole with Swale, which is not technically on city land.
This year, for the first time, Mattingly formed a partnership with the parks department, which has taken her concept into the park. By Concrete Plant Park’s northern entrance on Westchester Avenue, a newly constructed plant bed stretches along a fence line. Although there are no plants in it yet, the project’s creators have christened the new plot–the city’s first-ever sustainable food garden in a public park–the Bronx River Foodway.
The program is being launched to “learn the challenges and best practices of growing a productive food landscape in a city park,” parks department spokeswoman Kelly Krause said in an email. Its design relies on the concept of permaculture, which mimics a natural ecosystem and is intended to be self-sustaining as it blends with the surrounding landscape. Once completed, the plant beds will be full of grasses, herbs and other edible plants, distinguishing them from vegetable plots in community gardens.
The parks department will not provide any special protection for the plants when the project winds down, the spokeswoman said, but in the meantime the garden will be open to the public during park hours.
In order to design and develop the garden with community needs in mind, Mattingly worked closely with local nonprofit group Youth Ministries for Peace & Justice. The Soundview organization’s knowledge of the neighborhood and its favorite flavors helped determine what plants should be grown in the Foodway.
“We really want it to be a two-sided conversation,” said Dariella Rodriguez, Youth Ministries’ director of community organizing. “When people came on here and were able to say ‘I grow this in my country,’ or ‘my mother always made tea with this,’ that’s a completely different experience. We’re allowing the community to teach us.”
The organizers are extending the project’s community outreach component even further. Youth Ministries is offering grants of between $500- and-$5,000 to community groups and individuals to organize events and relevant programs on the site. Organizations that have applied so far include Bronx Jiu-Jitsu, Revolutionary Fitness, Kelly Street Garden, and the Healing Drum Collective, Rodriguez said. In addition, the group Strictly Young People is sending 25 young people to work in the garden and on Swale.
Grant recipients will be announced later this summer.