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.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.