Could Louisville ever have a community garden that floats on the Ohio River?
It’s not as weird as it might seem.
In New York City, a community garden has taken root in an unexpected place: a barge that floats down the Bronx River. The project is called “Swale,” a term for a hollow place that collects water. It was created by artist Mary Mattingly to raise awareness of regulations that make it tough for people to plant and harvest produce in the city.
“And we wanted to try to address that with a barge that’s on the water that’s attached to public land,” Mattingly says. “So it’s still publicly accessible. And at the same time, [we wanted to] talk about water and try to reframe food as a commons, too.”
Hello, Concrete Park! We can't wait to see you all for our 7/23 grand opening! pic.twitter.com/COKVZQtM4Q
— Swale (@SwaleNY) July 19, 2016
Videos of “Swale” bobbing along the river, covered in lush vegetation, have made rounds on social media; the first time I saw it, I realized that it looks just like the barges that float down the Ohio River every day — except instead of being laden with coal or chemicals, it’s covered in fresh fruits and vegetables that the public can pick while it’s docked.
So, I wondered, would a floating food forest be possible in Louisville? And if so, would it actually help with hunger here?
Well, first things first. Let’s talk about cost.
According to a representative from McBride Fleet in New Albany, the typical barge ranges anywhere from $425,000 to $1.5 million.
Then comes permitting. Todd Hornback is a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District Office.
“So yes, that would have to come through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Hornback says. “It would be a submittal through our office and it would have to ask location — and then based on location it would go through the process of, ‘is it disturbing wetlands? Will there be dredge material pulled from it? Does it need a dock built?’”
He says a permit for something like that is possible. So technically, this could happen in Louisville.
But is it necessary?
Mattingly created “Swale” to draw attention to city ordinances that prevented people from getting fresh produce in convenient, public spaces — like public parks — at reasonable cost.
There’s a need for that in Louisville. Jefferson County has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the state and, according to the University of Louisville’s “The State of Food” report, convenience stores are often the only food stores many residents of West Louisville and East Downtown can access on a regular basis.
But according to Amanda Fuller — who owns the market garden Lots of Food in the Portland neighborhood — there’s plenty of opportunity inland for community gardeners to help out.
“From a regulatory perspective, there are a lot of zoning districts where agriculture is a permitted use,” Fuller says. “I would say Louisville is more friendly than a lot of cities have been, or [it] has been pretty quick to recognize the value of agriculture in our urban landscape.”
That’s not to say there aren’t rules with which Fuller disagrees; recently she was cited for having vegetation taller than 10 inches.
“So that is not compatible with my practices of trying to cultivate biodiversity, trying to cultivate plants that are beneficial for pollinators,” she says.
And there’s also a policy requiring community gardens on private property to be billed for water. That’s fine, she says, but about half the charge is sewage, and the fees can get expensive.
Still, it’s not enough to convince her to move to a barge.
“As long as there’s a lot of vacant land available in the city of Louisville, I don’t think I’m going to be planting a barge anytime soon,” she says.
Fuller says she purchased her one-third acre lot in Portland — which is actually a collection of five lots that had been vacant for 20 years — from the Louisville Land Bank for $50.
So, while a community garden barge is a cool idea, for now, efforts to increase access to produce in Louisville might be better focused on dry land.