The Lowline is coming to Delancey Street, and it’s the brightest idea in public design since Vaux & Olmsted put a park in the heart of Manhattan.
Imagine pouring sunlight into a glass as easily as lemonade. What would you do with an entire pitcher? Imagine gallons of the shining stuff pouring off the New York City skyline and dripping down the cracks in the sidewalk. Imagine it pouring from the stone ceilings of the city’s subways – not with the ghostly glow of LEDs or the yellow hum of sodium lamps, but with the soft and soothing flow of daylight.
It’s not science fiction. Not anymore.
The world’s first underground park will be built under New York City’s Lower East Side, and it will be lit by an innovative solar technology that channels daylight just like water.
Designed by former NASA engineer James Ramsey, the “remote skylight” will be planted on the roofs of urban buildings where it will capture photons from the sun, reflect them onto a ground-based collector, gather them into a single focal point, and direct them through a tube that extends underground. This light will retain all of the essential wavelengths necessary to sustain plant life, and could possibly even be used to grow food.
The proposed park is called the Lowline as a nod to Manhattan’s High Line park, a 1.45-mile stretch of green converted from a disused railroad spur between Gansevoort Street and the Javits Convention Center.
The Lowline would repurpose the Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal located under Delancey Street, abandoned since 1948. On its website, the Lowline team writes that “[t]his hidden historic site is located in one of the least green areas of New York City— presenting a unique opportunity to reclaim unused space for public good.”
But reclaiming the space is not quite that simple. In an interview with Planet Experts, Dan Barasch, the project’s co-founder and Executive Director, explained that converting the space into a public park is an extensive and time-consuming legal process.
“The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the subways in New York City, has a master lease on the site from the city of New York,” he said. “So it actually is city-owned land but the MTA…it’s not in their mandate to build and preserve public spaces. So in order for the vision that we’ve proposed to come alive, it will need to change hands, and that’s what we’re unlocking right now.”
Before they can convert the terminal, the Lowline, the MTA and City Hall must figure out how to unpack the land transfer process and determine the best way to convey the space as a public amenity – something Barasch admits is taking longer than he and James Ramsey initially hoped.
Ramsey, the owner of RAAD Studio, a New York-based design firm, was first introduced to the abandoned Williamsburg terminal in 2009. According to the Lowline website, it was then that Ramsey began thinking of how to channel light underground in order to grow plants and trees. At the same time, Dan Barasch (who has held positions with Google, PopTech and the NYC government) was participating in a project to install art in the city’s subway system. One night, the two men hit upon the idea of building an underground park.
“I sort of looked at this challenge,” said Barasch, “and I immediately saw that it was a project that would be a really good not-for-profit organization.” There were a lot of other directions the project could have taken, he added, such as pitching it to developers or giving it a retail-focus. “I always thought of this as a public amenity,” he said, “that when we get out and we ask people about this, the thing that is inspiring about this idea is its potential to improve people’s lives.”
Two years later, Ramsey and Barasch promoted the concept of the Lowline in a New York Magazine feature, following it up with a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $155,000 and the commissioning of two planning studies to assess the project’s viability. In September 2012, a full-scale model of the green park, replete with the innovative solar technology, was built in an abandoned warehouse on Delancey Street.
By the summer of 2013, nine elected officials had endorsed the Lowline and encouraged the city to support the project. Public awareness campaigns in the form of exhibits and in-school programs have also been hugely successful. “There’s been a really tremendous positive level of support from the community,” said Barasch. “The local business community views the project as something that will help drive the traffic that will reinvigorate the neighborhood. […] Many of the parents, educators and organizations that serve the neighborhood have rallied around the project as a way to get kids excited about technology.”
The broad level of support is something Barasch takes great pride in. “I think it’s become a collective dream in the neighborhood,” he explained, “and it’s something that I know resonates far and wide with a lot of different kinds of people.”
Yet despite the neighborhood’s enthusiasm and the city’s own goodwill, committing the much-needed public funding and resources is a long and bureaucratic process. The High Line, for instance, was 10 years in the making, from the beginning of its advocacy to actually opening the first portion of the park. The third and final phase of the development wasn’t completed until about five years after that.
“It’s a very, very long term process,” said Barasch. In one way or another, he and the Lowline team has been working on the project for three to four years and will optimistically spend another three to five years before everything is in place. “We have the city of New York, senior officials in City Hall, willing to go down the road with us and look at this proposal in a very serious way,” he said, which is itself a significant mark of progress. “When we were getting started I used to say we want to do this more quickly than the High Line. Then reality set in and I realized…just the reality of real estate in New York City.”
To speed the process along and gain much-needed capital for the project, the Lowline launched a new Kickstarter campaign that concludes on Wednesday at 6pm EST. The team’s goal is to raise $200,000, in part to construct an interactive lab to function as a proof of concept of both their technology and its ability to nourish plants.
“The city’s very interested in it,” said Barasch. “You can imagine the kind of questions they’ve asked us many times. ‘So how are you going to pay for it?’ That’s a very important question and we’re developing a very clear capital funding plan. The other thing they always ask is, ‘Does the technology actually work? You guys come in here with your fancy diagrams, but does it actually work? How do you know it will work?’”
And so that is what Barasch, Ramsey and the rest of their crew are doing. “We’re building this to show people in the city, inviting people in the community to come in and be like, ‘Wow, this is actually a beautiful place, this is what we want, we want it here in New York first.”
Money from the Kickstarter will go to building this prototype of the Lowline that will welcome visitors and allow the team to test how people use the space, how kids interact with it and what kinds of social events will benefit from the environment.
“I think the Lowline will serve a need that people didn’t even know that they had,” said Barasch, “such as the need for public space – particularly in the winter months and in a crowded environment like New York – a place that isn’t just about buying something but simply an additional beautiful public space.”
The technology for the Lowline will begin with the world’s first subterranean, solar park, but that’s just “the tip of the iceberg” in terms of what’s possible, according to Barasch. “If we can pull this off,” he said, “you can imagine doing this all over New York City, all over other cities, and have a larger conversation about what reclaiming abandoned infrastructure is really all about. And that’s a topic I’m very, very excited about.”
Spaces like the Lowline will increasingly be in demand as the globe’s population swells. According to the UN, 54 percent of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas, and that figure is expected to increase to 66 percent by 2050. Sustainable urbanization is the only way to preserve the health and safety of these growing cities, the majority of which will be located in Africa and Asia.
“It’s no longer true that we can simply scale out and sprawl our cities further in suburbs and all of that,” said Barasch. “Increasingly, cities are centers where humanity will live. So here we have this incredible density of people and it’s only going to get denser. How do we really transform that?”
That transformation will come not only in the form of underground parks but in the application of natural light to conventionally dreary places like office buildings and hospitals.
“There’s a clear difference between a space that is lit beautifully with natural access to the sun and of a space that is claustrophobic and dark,” said Barasch. “You’re in California, so I don’t need to tell you about the impact of being close to the sun, but in New York City especially, you see a real difference on a day like today when there’s a blue sky and people are happy. How do we capture that a little bit more and do more with that? I think that’s the bigger picture of what we’re doing and how this connects to a larger vision for improving the world.”
Barasch has already consulted with parties interested in reclaiming abandoned infrastructure in Paris, Seoul and Florida. “People are inspired by us because it’s sort of a new frontier, looking at past industrial heritage and dreaming of another future life for it. It’s a bigger trend,” he said. “It’s more than just us.”