Fairfield student’s research is featured on Swale, an artist’s vision for a sustainable food source

Fairfield student’s research is featured on Swale, an artist’s vision for a sustainable food source

by Susan M. Cipollaro

On one of the hottest days on record this summer, the gangway of a river barge that has been converted into a floating garden — Swale — was lowered onto the bank of the Bronx River to welcome visitors aboard.

Docked at Concrete Plant Park in the South Bronx, the floating farm project is both an art installation and an urban garden — a food forest brimming with medicinal and edible trees, herbs and plants that will provide fresh vegetables and fruit for the community, including kale, beets, chard, strawberries, arugula, leeks and artichokes — all free of charge. On this hot day in July, New York-based artist Mary Mattingly, the designer and founder of Swale, welcomed visitors to this floating farm.

Among those who climbed aboard was a group from Fairfield University that included students studying environmental science and art this summer, joined by Professor of Studio Art, Jo Yarrington, Biology Professor Jim Biardi, PhD, and other University representatives. They were there because of Mattingly’s connection to Fairfield and student research on plants used to help purify the water supply on board, which is integral to what sustains the Swale ecosystem.

To get a sense of what the Swale project is like, imagine a barge that is 130 feet long, that travels up and down the waterways of New York — where people can climb aboard and pick fruit and vegetables — all for free.
This summer, Swale docked at Yankee Pier, Governors Island and Brooklyn Bridge Park—Pier 6, before making its way to the Brooklyn Army Terminal this fall. While docked, people will be invited on board to gather fresh food.
“Horticultural experts and people who know a lot about soil and water work with us, and we get eggs from four chickens which are now part of the system,” said Mattingly during the July launch. “In a couple of weeks it will begin to get very lush. You can come on and pick as much as you want.”

The idea behind Swale, which functions both as a sculpture and a model of a food source for the future, is also meant to make us question, “What if healthy, fresh food could be a free public service, and not just an expensive commodity?”
“Swale is a call to action,” Mattingly said. “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.”
Swale’s first stop in this part of the Bronx — considered a food desert —highlights the issue of food inequity in many U.S. cities. Ironically, the South Bronx lacks affordable, healthy food, despite being home to Hunt’s Point Market, one of the largest food distribution centers in the world.

Swale was launched with the help of many collaborators including a nautical engineer, landscape architects, gardeners, artists, educators, the U.S. Coast Guard and students from Stuyvesant High School, Dwight-Englewood Prepartory School and Fairfield.

The water cleaning system on Swale incorporates research conducted at Fairfield on plants that can absorb toxins from water.

Swale uses rain and city water, but also water from the river. The way Swale’s filtration system works, river water is pumped into buckets that have slow sand filters, which the water trickles through. The film that accumulates on top of the sand acts as the first layer of cleaning. The water then drips into tanks that contain sand, gravel and specific wetland plants that absorb and filter out remaining contaminants. Finally, the water is filtered again through a carbon filter, where it comes out clean.

“Plants take out biological and chemical contaminants, and then we move to a carbon filter at the end,” Mattingly explained, adding that the water is routinely tested to make sure the system is in working order.

Fairfield got involved when Mattingly came to campus in spring 2015 as part of the campus-wide 2014-2016 University Theme “Water.” After a lecture on her environmental work with floating wetlands, Mattingly was interested in partnering with Fairfield students on her upcoming project. She gave a workshop on the construction of floating wetlands attended by art students and Environmental Science students in Dr. Biardi’s class. That inspired biology major Megan Lewis ’15 to want to do more — as part of her senior capstone focus — and help research the regional plants needed for both the workshop and campus-sited working wetlands.

“Mary was doing these floating wetlands, and I was interested in the way she raises awareness. I was also interested in the plants in these systems serving a bigger purpose,” Lewis said. “Professor Yarrington encouraged me to do an independent project, and I thought, I’d really like to be involved in this focus on environmental toxicology impact.”

From a list that Mattingly provided students, Lewis focused her research on finding plants that could remove toxins from waterways. She created small floating experimental wetlands on Bellarmine Pond and Hopkins Pond on campus.

“I found out that bulrush and sweet greens can sequester or remove toxins from waterways, store them in the plants themselves and bio-remediate to break them down into smaller components that might be less harmful,” Lewis continued. “Mary was all for using plants in this way.”

In the end, Mattingly took Lewis’ research and applied it to the water-purifying system on Swale: “We ended up using patina bulrush and cattail and started from a list of plants we could get our hands on, from the student’s research,” Mattingly said.

According to Dr. Biardi, the wetlands project on Bellarmine Pond — clearly visible this summer like a small island — will continue through at least the next academic year. “The vegetation in the floating structures is growing well and helping to remove excess nutrients from the watershed,” he said.

Dr. Biardi noted that the University’s strategic plan calls for cross-disciplinary thinking to solve real-word problems — like combining biology and art to purify water, for example.

“It’s fascinating that Mary was bringing those pieces in her mind when she came to campus,” he continued,” and inspired us with practicality, enthusiasm and artistic possibilities.” ●F

For more information on Swale visit www.swaleny.org