An artist is floating a “food forest” on a barge around New York state

An artist's impression of Swale. Image: Swale/T. Craig Sinclair.

There’s no question that both our cities, and the population within them, are becoming larger. Much has been made of the need for education about healthy lifestyles and diet to help combat a growing public health emergency. But how best can we access food, particularly fresh and healthy produce, in increasingly dense urban centres?

It’s an issue that artist Mary Mattingly is keen to explore. And her latest New York project, Swale, a floating “food forest”, aims to inspire just such a conversation.

A leased barge, measuring in at 120 x 30 feet, will provide the foundation for a forest growing a range of produce. Whilst touring piers around New York state for six months, the forest will accommodate up to 300 people per day coming aboard, exploring and foraging for anything from herbs, berries and kale to kiwis.

On board the barge. Image: Swale/T. Craig Sinclair.

The project is partly inspired by the growing urban agriculture movement found in New York City, now home to the largest rooftop farms in the world. From what was once a hobby for a few keen enthusiasts, this expansion has been supported by grassroots movements, volunteering and municipal programs.


One of the goals of Swale is to get people involved with these ventures, and to encourage their continued growth from the bottom up. “We have a lot of urban farms here that are not really protected,” says Mattingly. “They’re farmed until real estate takes over. So I think that trying to assert the public nature of this –that food is a service and not just a commodity – would be a win, for me.”

In an effort to inspire discussion and involvement, Swale will host community and outreach events at each of the six piers it is scheduled to visit. In July and August, for example, Biome Arts will be leading workshops that introduce visitors to the different species on board and discuss community-based renewable energy sources, amongst other topics. There will also be poets and performers giving exhibitions; Swale is, primarily, an art installation. “This is experiential,” says Mattingly “and to me, art is always experiential.”

Yet even as an art project, usually able to skirt some regulations, acquiring the necessary licenses and permits has been difficult. Mattingly had hoped to enhance the project’s sustainable credentials by repurposing shipping containers, welding them shut and joining them to create a barge. While the engineering was sound, gaining the permits required to launch such a vessel took more time than was available – hence the rented barge.

One of the goals of the project is to become a permanent space, perhaps on land, and to be a forerunner to similar installations. But permanency presents other obscure aspects of law to be addressed: foraging is forbidden in much of New York City, and the definitions of public food and public spaces can be tricky.

 

More floating trees. Image: Swale/T. Craig Sinclair.

The project is undoubtedly ambitious, but Mattingly remains undeterred, “Really what we need to do is not rethink these laws because it’s a neat idea, but because it’s essential.” And it seems that others agree. Everyone from nautical engineers and human rights lawyers to doctors have given their time to Swale, and the project has raised over $32,000 from backers on Kickstarter.

Nonetheless, Mattingly downplays its significance. “I don’t know if anything is ever enough. I think that this could just be the beginning. This is one step in a process that a lot of people are doing work in and are involved in… It’s a symbol.” There’s no doubt that the policy changes and shift in thinking that Swale hopes to set in motion will take time. Urban agriculture has existed for years, and while New York City might be leading the way in some aspects, it still remains a niche topic for most city dwellers.

But involving people in their food procurement and promoting discussion on these topics are a first step. And having a forest float down the Hudson is quite a symbol.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.