Swale, docked at Concrete Plant Park, carries a forest of free-to-forage fresh produce on its back. Photo credit: Flickr/Inhabitat

In 2016, on one of the hottest Saturdays of the summer, a barge was docked at a promenade just over a mile up the Bronx River from Hunts Point—one of the biggest food deserts in the United States. From afar, the barge, parked in Concrete Plant Park, looked inconspicuous, like an old rusted ship. A closer look revealed to Bronx residents that the barge held an edible food forest, home to raspberries, artichokes, and beach plums. 

Swale, a garden on a 130-by-40-foot steel barge, is the work of New York–based artist Mary Mattingly. Docked adjacent to New York City’s public land, Swale used the common laws of the water as a loophole to make foraging possible—an illegal public act when committed on parkland in a largely privatized city. Here, New Yorkers could freely forage for plants and vegetables to their heart’s desire. 

Although foraging and natural literacy seem exclusive to bell-bottomed hippies, granola girls, and ruddy-faced celebrity chefs, this prehistoric practice has recently exploded in popularity. And this trend is not lost on New Yorkers. Since the pandemic, foraging tours have sprouted up across the five boroughs, while foraged matsutake mushroom toast has nestled its way into the influencer sphere.

Mattingly’s Swale came before the foraging boom, but it suggests that foraging may hold a permanent place in New York. Foraging is not just another fashionable affectation, but a path to addressing the deep-rooted issues embedded in our current food systems. Swale represents how our understanding of food access is changing; it’s an entryway into re-envisioning New York’s food landscape. 

“The vision for Swale was to increase access to local food and clean water. These two subjects have always been a deep concern for me,” Mattingly explained to me in a conversation in October 2022. She continued, “I thought an art project could pressure the city to open up public land for foraging, while being a space people can enjoy.”

Swale closed in the beginning of the pandemic, but a new iteration is set to launch in 2024. Considering that food hardship has increased by 35 percent in New York State, the prospect of foraging in public spaces is becoming a point of interest, and perhaps a necessity, for New Yorkers. 

On the culinary front, the U.S. offers: a smorgasbord of neon-packaged foods, “everything but the bagel” everything, and about a dozen diet coke flavors. In 2020, about 14 million households experienced food scarcity, and in 2019, almost 40 percent of the US population lived in a food desert. 

The United States’ neoliberal economic system emphasizes the importance of free markets, private enterprise, and limited government involvement. This system does not guarantee food security for all. Instead, it has contributed to the concentration of economic and political power within the food industry, benefiting major corporations such as Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Cargill, and Walmart. As a result, these companies hold significant control over the production, distribution, and pricing of food, which has led to environmental degradation, the exploitation of workers, and increased economic inequality. 

This brand of neoliberalism has especially harmed communities of color. During the 1970s, as supermarket competition intensified, grocers closed the doors of stores located in Black and Latino neighborhoods, citing these areas as “unprofitable” and “dangerous.” The legacy of this “supermarket redlining,” along with other manifestations of structural racism, continues to make it difficult for communities of color to access supermarkets. In 2009, The New York Times estimated around 750,000 New Yorkers were living in food deserts. In parts of the Bronx, there are more than 35 bodegas for every supermarket

Due to the defunding of resilient public special services by neoliberal policies, the responsibility of ensuring equitable access to food assistance, education, and healthcare falls upon the private sector. Unfortunately, access to these resources is uneven, and even well-intentioned nonprofits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) confront major efficacy barriers due to the structural inequalities perpetuating poverty and hunger. 

SNAP provides credit to families based on income and size to purchase food every month. The average benefit per person is only about $131 a month, which is less than $1.40 a meal. Depending on the season, a half pound of strawberries can cost between $1 and $4. It’s no wonder many families opt for cheaper, more accessible processed foods that provide fast calories. While efforts to increase food security should not be undervalued, the private sector can’t dismantle systemic racism, redistribute political power, fix the wage gap, fund affordable housing policy, or address any of the other structural inequalities that affect food sovereignty. Achieving true food sovereignty requires the dismantling of a system that prioritizes profit over people. 

Mattingly stands in opposition to New York’s neoliberal diet. She encourages us to envision what genuine food sovereignty could look like through Swale: a world in which fresh food is both abundant and accessible to all communities. While Mattingly doesn’t claim that foraging is the solution to food insecurity in New York City, she does believe that it can act as an entryway into revisioning how we tackle it—especially in food deserts like parts of the Bronx and Harlem. Swale’s vision of freshly grown produce and public space serves as a symbolic gesture. It urges us to reconsider our food systems, reaffirm our belief in food as a human right, and pave a pathway towards public food in public space. 

Swale is meant to model a commons, specifically addressing food and water. “Commons” refers to a shared resource, asset, or space that is accessible to a group of individuals, rather than being owned or controlled by a single entity or person. The concept of the commons is based on the idea that certain resources, such as land, water, forests, and knowledge, are held in common by a group of people who have a stake in them and a responsibility to manage them sustainably.

“The commons, as an imaginary, can provide an opportunity to start anew with a powerful way to reconceptualize economics, governance, and policy, and revitalize democratic practices at a time when politics are polarized, and existing orders don’t seem capable of reforming themselves,” explains Mattingly.

Swale embodies the principles of commoning by providing a shared resource that is accessible to all and engaging the local community in the upkeep and management of the barge. Swale encourages visitors to take part in the planting and harvesting activities. It also provides them with the opportunity to learn about sustainable food systems and the conservation of natural resources. Mattingly has made a point of engaging schools and community organizations. In the Bronx, a group of teenagers took on roles as docents, leading tours and workshops; they were paid through the New York City Summer Youth Employment Program. Mattingly emphasizes that for a commons to thrive, there must be a robust sense of cooperation within the governance systems.

“Commons governance systems are characterized by reciprocity, resource pooling, and stewardship,” Mattingly says. “It is this idea that I think needs to shape more and more urban spaces, as, from experience, caring for a place together gives me more agency, a deep love for the land and opens me up to different forms of reciprocity.” 

Swale is grounded in the life work of Elinor Ostrom, an author and political scientist who demonstrated that many global commons have been successfully sustained through community institutions. Ostrom’s book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (1990) fueled significant theoretical and empirical progress in the field of commons governance and collective action. Mattingly believes that Swale embodies Ostrom’s work, showing New Yorkers what the city could accomplish. 

“An edible forest models alternative space [and] requests involvement from city residents to share in caretaking and foraging,” she explains. “It relies upon partnerships with community groups and individuals in each place it docks, so people brought their own meaning to Swale.” 

Mattingly argues that it is important to build agency for residents in New York City’s public space in order for a commons to be successful. 

According to Ostrom, self-organizing collective actions are both theoretically and empirically possible. Many groups can effectively manage and sustain common resources if they have suitable conditions such as appropriate rules, good conflict-resolution mechanisms, and well-defined group boundaries. Herein lies the problem. Ostrom’s commons are difficult to apply in urban contexts, especially in cities that are inherently unequal like New York. A high level of social trust and cooperation among community members who manage the resources is essential for commons to operate effectively. This is because each member of the community must be willing to abide by the rules and regulations that have been established for the use of the commons.

Commons have successfully been created in places where social trust is paramount. Denmark, for example, has practically no public housing that is owned or provided directly by the state. Cooperative housing organizations are established as separate self-governing associations, with a management council controlled entirely by residents through a policy of tenant democracy. Cooperatives and housing nonprofit associations were established as part of the cooperative movement a century ago, and were underpinned by social trust and community spirit. Eva Skafte Jensen, senior researcher at the Danish Language Council, explains that “In the nineteenth-century, this was seen in the way people in the countryside established andelsbevægelsen (cooperatives) focused on common goals.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, social trust is relatively low. In the early 1970s, half of Americans said that most people can be trusted; today that figure is less than one third. Strikingly, the United States is the only established democracy to see a major decline in social trust. According to a Pew Research Center study, “it stands out among 17 advanced economies as one of the most conflicted when it comes to questions of social unity.” A large majority of Americans say there are strong political, racial, and ethnic conflicts in the United States and that most people disagree on basic facts.

Of course, comparing trust in Denmark and the US is a challenging pursuit—Denmark is comparatively much smaller and relatively homogenous. But if the success of the Danish housing commons can teach the US anything, it’s that community and trust are pivotal. 

Swale has sparked some interest in the concept of a commons. As a direct result of community support, in 2017, a year after Swale’s inauguration, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation established their first land-based pilot project in the form of a public “foodway” in Concrete Plant Park

“If there is enough additional interest from residents in stewarding edible plants from people in communities near other public parks, the Parks system will work with groups to do more,” explains Mattingly. 

Swale’s success shows us that a growing number of people recognize the inadequacy of the current capitalist system to address the issues it has created. Most people who want to create commons are looking for an altogether new paradigm of economy and society. While literature on the commons has provided a deeper understanding of trust and its integral role in governing public space, most empirical work has been done in relatively simple settings. These studies do not capture the complexity of cities like New York and the many global institutionally-complex dilemmas that we face today. A central question for Mattingly is how we can create a trusting environment in the United States for commons to thrive. 

In cities where food deserts abound, Swale is a rebellion against the neoliberal diet: a vision where food is free and abundant to all communities. But the question of whether projects like Swale can be actuated in the US is complex. It is a question that neither Mattingly or her project can fully answer. However, as foraging continues to thrive, and swaths of 20-year-olds peruse Prospect Park for burdock, Swale’s return in 2024 offers us another beacon of hope.  

Emma Slack-Jøorgensen is an MA Candidate at the New School for Social Research and a writer from Copenhagen, with a focus on exploring the intricacies of the Danish economic and political landscape. You can find her on X @emmaulrikka.