When a city runs out of room for green spaces, it’s time to get creative. Like the minds behind New York City’s Lowline – the world’s very first underground park.

1.6 million people live in Manhattan. Each square foot of the urban island is in use and any new construction tends to be vertical. In other words: Manhattan is bursting at the seams.

Leaving less and less room and scope for one thing in particular: nature. At the same time, people crave and need nature: to wind down, relax, and escape their city’s incessant hustle and bustle. So, how to reclaim and establish green oases in a place where space is at a premium?

An underground tree in New York
Lowline lets plants grow underground.
Photo: Lizzy Zevallos / The Lowline

Former NASA engineer James Ramsey and ex-Google marketing expert Dan Barasch came up with a proposal: If there’s no more room in the actual city, why not take the park experience below ground?

A subterranean tree in New York
A system of mirrors fills the space with daylight.
Photo: The Lowline
construction of lowline in New York
Photo: Lizzy Zevallos / The Lowline
People walking through the subterranean park New York
Photo: Monzeeki / The Lowline
The lab of Lowline
Photo: Nina LoSchiavo
botanical garden of the lowline
Photo: The Lowline
subterranean park
Photo: Andrew Einhorn / The Lowline

Below the line

The basic premise of Lowline was born; the name is a reference and homage to West Manhattan’s existing High Line. The latter, covering more than a mile of a decommissioned freight train route, had been converted into a successful park that, ever since its inception in 2014, has been attracting an average of five million visitors per year.

More or less by chance, Ramsey and Barasch came across the perfect location for their project – right underneath Williamsburg Bridge. Here, a former terminal of the Manhattan-Brooklyn train connection (which has been out of service since 1948) offered 5,500 square meters of space for future greenification.

 

Underground exhibition in New York
Out of this world: the underground park.
Photo: Jami York

Yet the world’s first underground park is not about trees, frisbees, and pic-nics. Instead, the two friends envision an ever-verdant, blossoming, year-round botanical garden. To realize their idea, 38-year-old Ramsey has already developed an innovative lighting system that captures daylight via solar collectors and then redirects it into the former train terminal. Here, the light is further distributed via reflecting, dome-shaped fixtures.

According to Ramsey and Barasch, this technology alone constitutes a scientific milestone with plenty of potential for other settings and applications. It would allow bleak and bare school buildings, large halls, or entire basements to support a welcome injection of living green.

Lowline: An underground park in New York
Lowline envisions a large-scale leisure park beneath the city.
Photo: RAAD / The Lowline

The Lowline Lab

Yet there are still quite a few hurdles to overcome until the park’s planned opening in 2020. Right now, the duo are in the middle of testing, just two blocks from the prospective Williamsburg Bridge site. And while the Lowline Lab only covers a fifth of the envisaged future total park acreage, it has allowed interested visitors to catch a glimpse of the opportunities an underground park could offer since October 2015. More than 3,000 plants now grow in the red brick building, from different species of ivy and broom fork moss all the way down to broad-leaved arrowhead. By means of simple trial and error, the initiators are determining which plants would thrive underground. A welcome surprise: Strawberries can be harvested all through the winter.

Citizens get together at a crowdfunding event of the Lowline
Residents had the chance to get in touch with the project and team at a crowdfunding event.
Photo: Monzeeki / The Lowline

At the same time, the hall also serves as a hub and meeting point for locals, especially younger people – most of the lab’s visitors are aged 19-34. A vital part of the duo’s current efforts involves convincing the project’s immediate neighbors of its ultimate benefits; efforts flanked by frequent and regular workshop. The plan is to give residents the chance to vote on key Lowline design aspects before actual construction starts.

The Lowline Lab was open until the end of February, followed by the next phase of the project.

Exhibition of the lowline
Field trips, yoga classes, urban gardening ….
Photo: The Lowline
Yoga in the underground park
… are some of the many uses for the Lowline park.
Photo: Marlaina Lutz
Children exploring the underground park
Photo: Monzeeki / The Lowline
Children learning about science in the underground park
Photo: Monzeeki / The Lowline

Ten million dollars before the summer

The city greenlighted the Lowline in mid-2016 with one major proviso: The project needs to raise 10 million dollars within one year. While this sum only covers a fraction of the anticipated overall construction and running costs, currently estimated at $80 million, this seed money needs to be procured via donations since the city itself plans no further involvement. A Kickstarter campaign has already raised $225,000.

Despite this timeframe, Ramsey and Barasch do not sound worried about funding. Their optimistic statement to the dnainfo.com city portal: “We will simply crank up our efforts even more.”

Subterranean Park in New York
The future is green – even underneath New York City.
Photo: mike CC BY 2.0, via Flickr