Food is a growing topic at the family dinner table. Only these days, the dinner conservation isn’t concerned so much with what’s for dinner, but rather where dinner’s coming from.

Since its inception in the early 90’s, the local food movement has forced people to reexamine the American food system, exposing its failings in the areas of nutrition and sustainability. Though food has never been more plentiful, the food options available to the vast majority of Americans are high in calories and low in nutrition, contributing to the rise of obesity and chronic health problems. At the same time, the ever-expanding global food market emits more and more carbon every year through the vast network of planes, trains, and trucks that allows food grown halfway around the world to land at your corner grocery store.

Enter Urban Farming

It’s for these reasons that people like Marisa Prefer work fervently to introduce kids and adults to the benefits of local food. A person of many talents, Marisa has lent her skills as a designer, herbalist and educator to art projects and local farms from Berkeley, California to East Barre, Vermont.


Students get their hands dirty planting in their local community garden.

Marisa currently makes her home in Brooklyn where she works as the Programs Manager for Sprout Farms, an educational non-profit that partners with public schools in Brooklyn & Manhattan to teach students how to build and maintain sustainable gardens, while simultaneously providing an education in nutrition and community values. By working with schools and local communities, Sprout Farms, and organizations like it, help provide nutritious foods in neighborhoods that are often under-served with healthier options.

As beneficial as urban farms can be, setting one up in a city like New York can be extraordinarily difficult. Gaining access to arable land both within the city and in the outer boroughs is a real struggle for communities and individuals wishing to start their own local gardens as they face fierce competition for real estate. Communities inevitably have to compete against developers with deep pockets who view any sort of undeveloped land as potential revenue, rather than community space.

“Urban growing in NYC is not for the faint of heart. Things tend to be more complicated when more people become involved, and accessing land in New York City is somewhat of a family affair. Land access is a struggle in urban food production, community gardens fight against losing land to developers, and backyards are rare.”- Marisa Prefer

Fortunately, there are organizations throughout the city, such as GrowNYC and OasisNYC, that work to help local farmers find open land they can cultivate. However, if the city is ever going to develop a dedicated common space for local food producers, the land is going to have to come from somewhere besides terra firma.

Taking to the Sea

With land so hard to come by, a group of urban farmers, artists and engineers are taking to the water with a floating food forest of their own. The 110 foot by 30 foot floating platform, dubbed Swale, is meant to demonstrate how the city’s rivers can be used as common space for everyone, especially those local farmers who struggle to find space for community projects on dry land.


A rendering of Swale from a visitor’s point of view.

Its design incorporates repurposed shipping containers, as well as a sophisticated desalination system that can purify water from the river and use it to water the plants onboard. Once docked, intrepid foragers will be able to meander around a set path and pick their own fresh produce, for free, as part of a public service to provide healthy snacks and educate the public about the benefits of local food.


A prototype greywater filtration system designed by students at Parsons School of Design.

Marisa is working closely with the project’s creator, artist Mary Mattingly, and hopes that the success of Swale will encourage others to start farming on the city’s waterways. “There are so many possibilities for New York’s waterways. They are increasingly becoming stewarded, which makes them ripe for exploration, scientific inquiry, and ideation.” Marisa said.

“I hope folks will experience newness aboard Swale, that they are able to see their city from a bit of a different perspective and take a moment to connect with a part of the ecosystem that is so often ignored… I also hope that Swale excites folks into having deeper conversations about food access, policy and security in the urban environment.”

The Swale is currently scheduled to dock in the Bronx this June, and will continue to ferry to Governor’s Island and Brooklyn throughout the summer.

If your summertime plans include a little landscaping, don’t forget to rent a yard waste dumpster in NYC.