Mary Mattingly in Conversation with Philadelphia Parks & Rec’s Barry Bessler

During a PPEHLab at WetLand open house at the Walnut Street dock on the Schuylkill River, WetLand’s creator, Mary Mattingly, sat down to talk with the Chief of Staff of Philadelphia’s Parks & Recreation, Barry Bessler. They talk about PPEH’s collaborations with Parks educational programs and how this floating mobile platform contrasts to the more fixed nature of park spaces.

Parks manages the public dock where we tied up and hosted hundreds of passers-by on the nearby Schuylkill River Trail. The project had gotten lost for a while in a tangle of regulatory authorities, and we are grateful to Parks for helping get it sorted out.

In Conversation: Mary Mattingly and Barry Bessler

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MM: It’s nice to meet you in person.

BB: Thank you.

MM: Thank you for making this happen.

BB: It’s our pleasure. We’re always open to interesting and different projects that take place on our property and we’re very proud of the fact that we have so many acres that we’re responsible for in the city of Philadelphia—a full fifteen percent of the land area in Philadelphia is under the control of the Parks and Recreation Department. We’re always looking for unique and different things to attract the people to our spaces and this Penn/WetLand project certainly is one of those.

MM: That’s great. I am always amazed by the work that you guys are doing, as far as turning gray spaces to green spaces. Philadelphia is so far ahead of so many other cities in the United States.

BB: Especially in the past ten years. We have made great advances in our efforts to green the city through the Green 2015 project.

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Green 2015 launched in 2010. The plan committed the City to transform 500 acres of vacant lands into park space.

It’s not only taking spaces that were formerly not green and making them green, but making them more user friendly. There have been extensive tree planting efforts throughout the city. All of those kinds of things fit in with the environmental and urban ecology initiatives of our department. For so long, our department has just been thought of as the folks who operate the gyms, hand out basketballs, care for the park areas, and run special events. Certainly those are huge components of what we do, but we have an ever-increasing focus on the urban environment and sustainable initiatives; this fits right in with that.

MM: What is next for you guys in that process?

BB: We have a lot of education programs that take place in different areas throughout the city. This is particularly unique because it’s an interactive situation that joins the water—the river—with the land. If we can look at this as a partnership with Penn, then it’s a real feather in our cap. Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 11.12.25 AMHopefully, next spring we can involve some kids from our environmental education programs when you begin developing the floating gardens [and all of the other things that make this project so unique and so special]. That would be a great accomplishment.

MM: That’s really exciting for us, too.


BB: I know that WetLand is going into dry dock in a few weeks. Is there restoration that will take place during the winter? How has it fared so far? It was on the Delaware River last year, right?

MM: It was. It went from the Delaware River pretty much straight to dry dock. It fared pretty well. We did some upkeep before … we weren’t sure if this semester would be our launching semester, or if it would be next semester. For next semester, we have a few really great proposals for floating garden plans; that’s going to be our focus over the winter, so we can have a great floating garden system in the spring.

BB: And that all fits in with the artistic vision for this project?

MM: It’s really collaborative, because a lot of artists are coming on and working— Penn students will be as well. It’s not going to be just one artist’s plan. It’s almost like a process of design charrette for the gardens at this stage. So we’ll get people together and we’ll have certain criteria to meet.

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l. Artist Collective We the Weeds, r. Penn Theatre Arts student directors devise performances in the PPEHLab at WetLand.

BB: That’s what makes this so interesting. So many of the things that we do—design-wise or construction-wise—they’re all static spaces (parks, playgrounds, etc.), but the fact that this is portable and has this huge interactive component to it…

MM: It’s really interesting; I hadn’t really thought of that as a significant difference, but it makes all the world of difference as far a permitting goes… we need different permits to go to different places with WetLand. When you have a static space, you know exactly step-by-step what needs to happen; this is a little bit unclear.

BB: Well, it is… and unfortunately being on the water creates many different authority issues. It’s not only our authority because you’re tying off to our dock, but you have the coast guard and the Pennsylvania Fish and Bird Commission—all of the various entities that have some level of jurisdiction in this space and on the water. It needs to be a collaborative effort(?) so that everyone is aware… (trails off).

MM: Thank you for coming.

BB: Sure. It’s very interesting and I hope the project attracts a lot of visitors—it’s definitely worthwhile to check out!

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Tied up at the Walnut Street dock on the Schuylkill River, fall 2015.


Mary Mattingly is a Brooklyn-based artist who creates sculptural ecosystems in urban spaces. She is the creator of the WetLand project and is the 2015–16 Artist-in-Residence with the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities.

Barry Bessler is Chief of Staff at Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation.



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