A healthy diet usually comes at a high cost but New York City’s newly-launched floating food forest, Swale, is turning that preconception on its head, offering fresh vegetables for the public to pick and take home for free. Taking urban farming to a whole new level, the forest is described as a public art project that aims to reintroduce healthy food as a public service and not an expensive commodity. “Swale is an artwork. Art is integral to imagining new worlds… At its heart, Swale is a call to action. It asks us to reconsider our food systems, to confirm our belief in food as a human right, and to pave pathways to create public food in public space,” the project’s initiators explain.

“Food forests are a naturally regenerating, resilient, and effective agro-ecosystems, which can, over time, provide free, fresh food. However, food forests on New York City’s public land have been off-limits for almost a century for fear that a glut of foragers may destroy an ecosystem,” reads Swale’s mission statement, which goes onto explain the ingenuity of putting a community farm on water instead – New York’s biggest and most underutilized commons is its bodies of water, after all. “By creating a floating food forest, we create a different set of rules.  On the water, collaboration isn’t optional; to thrive, we have to work together.”

swale food forest new york city

Since its opening day in July 2016, Swale – built on a 130-foot by 40-foot floating barge, in the Bronx’s Concrete Plant Park – has been averaging 250 visitors a day. “People come on to Swale to pick edible or medicinal plants, relax, or participate in events. People also exchange plants, and give plants,” a spokesperson for Swale tells progrss.

The plants on board Swale mainly rely on rain water to grow, however, the facility also distills river water through slow sand filters and activated carbon filtration. Meanwhile, by integrating solar panels to run pumps and lights on the barge, Swale is practically self-sufficient. Tended to by the local community, the floating food forest’s team are always looking for more green fingers to join their mission, calling out for gardeners, plant nurseries and stewards to join in tending to the valuable crops. “By bringing together groups from varying backgrounds, we will create an environment that works together to find new ideas and answers to food security.”

“The forest needs about 275 gallons of water a day in the early stages. We have about a quarter acre of space to work with. Some is designated event space, and two thirds is space for growing. We are growing perennial plants so each year we don’t replant, [instead] the perennials grow stronger and bear more food,” continues Swale’s spokesperson.

swale food forest new york city

So far, the forest includes fruits and vegetables like blueberries, bananas, squash, kale, leeks and peppers, as well as several types of herbs. “Swale brings us one step closer to transforming our city from dependence on large-scale supply chains with little accountability, to one that strives for community interdependence.”

To cover its major expenses such as barge rental and insurance, the Swale team collected $60,000, from both its main donor, the New York Foundation for Arts, and among the local community through crowdsourcing. The floating forest will move to Governor’s Island and in September, before heading to Brooklyn Bridge Park. Soon after, Swale is expected to head to New Jersey, and maybe even Connecticut.

A similar concept of a floating dairy farm was unveiled in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, earlier this year, scheduled for completion by the end of 2016.