Taking Parks Underground: The Lowline in NYC

Parks are wonderful, welcome additions almost anywhere – especially in cities. However, by now, we all kind of know what to expect. I mean some parks are better than others, but there are few surprises left in the pastime of park visiting. There will be fresh cut grass, trees, flowers, and if you are lucky, some water fountains, a jungle gym packed with crusty-nosed children, fresh air, dogs that are so cute (and look so blissful) that they almost convince you for more than a second that yes, you should invest your time, money, and sanity into an involuntary best friend. I mean they are great, but they are kind of an area that is lacking in creativity and innovation. There might be an abstract sculpture here or there, but other than that, it’s a been there, done that kind of industry.

However, there are a few places that won’t take ordinary for an answer. They want fun, imaginative, and certainly not predictable. One of those places is in the process of dreaming up a different kind of park: New York. In New York – the city so accurately nicknamed “the concrete jungle,” there are of course, corners that have been overlooked or long forgotten, but little extra space for greenery. And so enters the experiment dubbed “The Lowline Lab,” which will eventually lead researchers to the completion of “The Lowline” ­­– the first underground park in the United States.

The look and feel of the park will be similar to New York’s notorious High Line Park, which uses abandoned train tracks for a unique aesthetic. Only, this time it will be done underground – specifically, underneath Delancey Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The project’s website confidently points out that this location is in “one of the least green areas in New York City – presenting a unique opportunity to reclaim unused space for public good.”

lowline3Currently, The Lowline Lab, which is a smaller version of what the actual park will eventually look like (representing approximately 5 percent of the real-life version), sits at 140 Essex St. in New York’s Lower East Side. One of the main goals of this lab, aside from letting visitors get a feel for what the true park will be like, is to pinpoint the science behind making it work. After all, even underground parks need your traditional park components, such as plants and trees – and the lack of sunlight makes creating that a little tricky, to say the least.


lowline2The Lowline Lab includes a variety of real plants – ranging from ground cover to edibles such as pineapple, mint, thyme, and more. In order to make green a possibility in such a lowlight environment, the lab is equipped with a segmented aluminum canopy. Tubing runs overhead, and uses mirrors and lenses to bring sunlight from the roof into the interior, and then the canopy directs the sunlight where it needs to go. The tubed sunlight is actually concentrated, making it roughly 30 times brighter than ambient sunlight. Bloomberg Business expands on the issue of bringing light underground in an article by Stephen Pulvirent:

“While some smaller collectors track the sun directly, larger ones use massive tracking mirrors to push the sunlight into their view. Both the mirrors and the collectors have coatings to filter out infrared light while keeping the ultraviolet parts of the spectrum. This presents the devices form getting hot (they’d be extremely dangerous otherwise) while keeping the wavelengths needed by plants and animals. These collectors are made by Portal, a Korean company working with Lowline on the project.”


lowline5The park would be a 70 million dollar project, and the plan for funding is as modern as the park idea itself: Kickstarter. The idea belongs to James Ramsey and co-founder and Executive Director of the Lab, Dan Barasch. If all goes according to plan, the park will be complete by 2020. However, official plans for construction are still pending while the group waits for MTA to release the tunnel to them.

Leave it to New York City to take something that I thought was kind of unexciting and make it hip and trendy, am I right? I mean, the hipster movement has seemingly taken over lots of major cities, and New York is right up there at the top of the list. And with hipsters comes…more hipness. Sometimes it’s in the form of cronuts; sometimes in the form of no-name bands whose lyrics are so abstract and meaningful it almost hurts a little bit; sometimes its in the form of thick-rimmed, vintage-looking glasses; and sometimes, like in this case, it comes in the form of making the uninteresting interesting. An underground park…touché New York.

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