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2 Inspiring and Innovative Urban-Food Projects

By Joshua Burman Thayer, Native Sun Gardens

Tags: food policy, urban homesteading, urban sustainability, urban farming, food deserts, New York, Joshua Burman Thayer,

A strange floating craft has docked in the South Bronx. Bobbing and swaying with the outgoing tide, now grow plants sending new roots out into fertile organic soil. Why would food be growing on a raft docked in the South Bronx, you ask?

New York City currently prohibits the cultivation of edible plants in public spaces in all 5 boroughs. While the health concern for tainted soil in an urban area is an important concern, many citizens  feel that edible crops should be incorporated into our commons.

As modern urban dwellers more and more demand healthy organic foods, many are turning to within the cities own green spaces to find ways to create community abundance within “the cities walls”. As shipping costs and food prices continue to rise, a movement to partake in local community food production is on the rise.

Some cities like New York are too worried about liability perhaps to sanction such positive victory gardens. However, during World War II, more than 20 million Americans grew “Victory Gardens” to supplement the hard times of war rationing.

Since NYC will not allow such a demonstration on land, a group of activists have turned to the Seas, or the Bronx River to be exact. Why the Bronx River, you ask? The South Bronx is one of the nation’s largest food distribution centers, and yet is considered a “Food Desert” where liquor stores outnumber grocery stores.

S.W.A.L.E. New York

A diverse team of specialists has created a living, breathing 130-foot-by-40-foot barge called SWALE, full of a demonstration food forest and interpretive information on community-grown food and growing systems. The Food Forest Barge is meant to spark dialogue amongst New Yorkers, by providing a living system of public food production. Produce is available for harvest from the barge to all in need. The barge also serves as a living art installation, providing interactive displays of art and technology with ways to turn salvaged everyday urban waste stream items into food production system components.

To raise awareness around the 5 Burroughs, SWALE will dock in 5 locations of NYC for the remainder of the calendar year (see itinerary below). The SWALE barge is currently docked at Concrete Plant Park in the South Bronx.  All are welcome to come down and check out the living edible barge. Come see for yourself if urban green spaces can retain aesthetic beauty while also providing local food.

Successful Case Study: City-Approved Beacon Food Forest in Seattle

In 2009, food activists began working with neighborhood associations as well as the Seattle Parks and Recreation department to address the desire for community food production. Today, this garden stands over 6 years old and is an attractive, safe space that offers food to whomever is in need.

The Beacon Food Forest, starting as a local community endeavor, then worked with Seattle Parks district to develop a 7-acre food forest which still retains functionality of paths, gathering spaces and aesthetic beauty. This sort of success in another major American city sheds an example of hope in and lusciousness in a concrete jungle.

Get Involved!

The SWALE project is taking an action step to create the space for each of us to question the assumption that our commons are static and stationary and merely ornamental. By using Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest as an example, indeed it seems possible to begin to plant edible commons for the benefit of all.

SWALE Itinerary

July 23rd-August 14TH, 2016: Concrete Pant Park, Bronx, NY

August 15TH-September 14TH, 2016: Governor’s Island

September 15TH-October 14TH, 2016: Brooklyn Bridge Park

October 15TH-Novermber 14TH, 2016: Brooklyn Army Terminal

November 15TH-December 15TH, 2016: TBD

For more information, go to

Joshua Burman Thayer is an ecological landscape designer, writer, and educator based in the Bay Area of California. Find him online at Native Sun Gardens, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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