In-depth


The floating garden of New York City

Sebastian Moll
12 June 2017 | updated 12 June 2017

An ecological art project is giving New Yorkers a taste of garden heaven. The only catch: it’s on a barge. The project aims to get city dwellers to think about the relationship between humans and nature. And it’s generating big buzz.

New York. Marisa Prefer is proud of each and every single plant in her garden. You might even think they’re her children the way she presents each one individually to visitors.

“Here is the cabbage, it’s almost ripe,” she said, stroking the leaves gently. “And over there, the leeks. You absolutely have to try then, you can eat them.”

Only the occasional swaying reminds you that you’re on a boat. And in the background are the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan to remind you that it’s in the middle of New York City.

Artist wants to encourage dialogue 

Prefer is an educator at Swale, a floating herb and vegetable garden docked just off Brooklyn Bridge. The boat is packed: a woman is harvesting lettuce and basil, an older man is planting a bed of tomatoes. Someone else is asking Prefer if the ground in Manhattan is good enough to create a garden plot in their backyard.

This is exactly what the artist Mary Mattingly had in mind with the Swale project.

“We want to encourage a dialogue,” said Prefer, who works together with Mattingly. “We want people to think about their food supply.”

Mattingly’s vision, if not obsession, for the past few years has been to get people to think about where the things needed for life come. Since 2012, when Hurricane Sandy flooded entire New York City neighbourhoods and left half of Manhattan without electricity for a week, Mattingly can’t stop thinking about what would happen if all supply routes broke down.

Giving up all possessions

“I’m definitely an apocalyptic,” said Mattingly. “I think we live in very extreme times. The consequences of climate change are becoming more and more drastic, social inequality is being more and more extreme, and political polarisation is becoming all the more great.”

To make clear that humanity is on the brink of an apocalypse, Mattingly has again and again been playing Mad Max scenarios in her head over the past few years. She moved into a tiny space in New York together with her partner – in part as a commentary on the city’s real estate insanity. 

And she got rid of all her possessions. But she didn’t just throw them away. Instead, Mattingly photographed every dress, ever book, every old sketch pad and posted the pictures online as a catalogue of her life. 

She wrote a caption for each object, explaining where the raw materials came from, how much energy was required to manufacture it, even the object’s history. Then she rolled everything into an enormous ball and pushed it through the city to make a statement.

Small socialist paradise

The Swale project on the East River is decidedly less dramatic – but perhaps more effective. 

Swale isn’t waiting around for the apocalypse: the floating garden is already being used. And since it first anchored in Brooklyn, it’s become a meeting point and place for discussions about sustainability and the relationship between nature and city.

Prefer invites everyone who visits to plant something and take something home with them. Everything that grows on Swale belongs to everyone – a small socialist paradise only two kilometres away from Wall Street.