A row of trees fills the median bisecting Delancey Street, where the Williamsburg Bridge spills into Manhattan’s Lower East Side. For now, those trees are the only plant life in sight, but a local group has begun testing an idea that could put this intersection at the forefront of urban green space—as home to the world’s first underground park.
The Lowline, as the proposed park is called, emerged from conversations between two friends. Dan Barasch, whose wide-ranging background includes stints at UNICEF and Google, had been thinking about reclaiming underground spaces for art installments; James Ramsey, an architect and former NASA engineer, was experimenting with ways to use sunlight underground. Together, they have established a nonprofit organization and begun the process of obtaining permission to use the long-dormant site of the Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal, currently managed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
The project’s name pays homage to another reclaimed Manhattan space, the High Line, a linear park that opened on an elevated railway in 2009. Barasch hopes the Lowline becomes the same sort of community resource. “We want this to be a space for recreation, maybe [to] sit and read a book, or maybe just walk through it on the way to something else,” he says.
What makes the project unique is Ramsey’s solar system, which essentially funnels sunlight underground. A series of street-level and rooftop dishes will capture light and transfer it, via fiber-optic cables, down into the park, stimulating photosynthesis in plants and trees.
To showcase their idea and to test the technology, the Lowline non profit opened the lab on Essex Street in October 2015. Three remote skylights sit on the roof, each opposite a mirror that tracks the sun. Inside the lab, mossy green stalactites dangle from the ceiling, and two lush, green islands grow up from an otherwise empty concrete-and-brick space. More than 3,000 plants—ferns, grasses, mosses, even cacti—make up this hybrid ecosystem that’s part tropical forest, part terrarium. Bright, redirected sunlight—70 to 80 percent of the captured light—shoots from three holes in the contoured ceiling.
The would-be botanical garden is also something of a social experiment: How can and will people use such a space? The lab already has welcomed food vendors, hosted public talks, and delivered educational programming to more than 2,000 kids. Barasch’s hope is that, “if you go to a New York City school, you will go to the Lowline at some point.”
In the meantime, as he and Ramsey await approval and continue to raise funds, they already count the project as a success. Representatives from cities including Copenhagen, Paris, and Singapore have expressed interest in using the solar setup. And the technology’s potential extends well beyond green spaces. “We would like to take a broader look at how it can potentially transform any interior space in any city,” Barasch says. “Spaces like offices or schools or hospitals—or even prisons.”