Rooftop gardens are fine ways to bring green space to urban centers, but they’re not all accessible to the public. And yes, there are park spaces that already exist in every large city, but they can’t get larger – there is no more available land to increase the size or number of parks as the population swells. Below ground, abandoned caverns in the bowels of a city can present a new opportunity for green urban development, one that modern technology is up to making possible, and sustainable by harnessing the sun to grow plants.
Of course, coming up with a feasible concept requires mental dexterity that leaps way outside of the box. It’s one thing to install grow lights in a bomb shelter to produce zero-miles lettuce beneath London, but growing trees below the streets of New York City’s Lower East Side? How many mega-wattage HID ballasts would that require… per tree? And the Lowline has close to 1.5 acres of available space beneath Delancey Street the plan calls for install multiple trees, and a host of smaller plants. The mind shudders at the thought of the cost of powering said lights annually. But solar light is available year around and delivers full spectrum naturally.
The project is a first in several capacities, and has been years in development, but bringing new life to an old trolley terminal may come to fruition in the not so distant future. The world’s first underground park was also the very first city-scale plan to seek and successfully gather crowdfunding. Not only did they meet their funding goal on that Kickstarter campaign, but raised 150% of the money they asked for in 6 days flat. That was back in 2012, which may seem like the park is taking forever to come to life, but developing the source of phytosynthesis had to go from concept to reality, and it has shifted from one kind of delivery below ground to another during the discovery and development stage.
Can You See Green Space Here?
It’s Going to Look Like This
Why go to all this bother? New York has some wonderful parks, but there are none near the Lower East Side – its a community that has no green space. While it may sound like science fiction to some, an idea that isn’t really going to pan out, the guys behind this project have the background skills and experience that it will take to bring it to life, and ensure it’s a success. The Lowline team, James Ramsey and Dan Barasch, have backgrounds with NASA and Google, engineering, and social innovation. Ramsey is currently an architect, and Barasch a social innovation network executive at PopTech. If anyone can take the 110-year-old abandoned trolley terminal and turn it into green space replete with trees and landscaping, this team can.
““Technology enables us to create an appealing green space in an underserved neighborhood,” says Ramsey. The key, he says, is the “remote skylight,” a system that channels sunlight along fiber-optic cables, filtering out harmful ultraviolet and infrared light but keeping the wavelengths used in photosynthesis. “We’re channeling sunlight the way they did in ancient Egyptian tombs, but in a supermodern way.” Ramsey envisions a stand of dozens of lamppost-like solar collectors on the Delancey Street median, feeding a system of fixtures down below.” — New York Magazine
Subterranean Green Space Isn’t Magic
Some got the impression that the project was dead because no new developments have emerged for quite some time. But the world’s first anything takes a lot of behind the scenes work and planning. It’s never an instant satisfaction kinda thing, not if its going to work really well. Going from a scale model to a working live model is the most recent step taken toward realizing the underground park goal. The solar collection system that borrows the idea from Egyptian tombs and couples it with current technology for collecting sunlight was installed in a blacked out warehouse this summer to provide enough light to sustain a live prototype. This installation known as the Lowline Lab allows the team to fine tune everything in anticipation of building the park under Delancey Street. It will be open to the public through March 2016 on Saturdays and Sundays and has created a lot of excitement in the city.
The MTA, who owns the sealed off Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal is agreeable to the plans for turning it into green space, but will not provide any funding to revitalize the vacant underground structure. No problem, now the plan for gather the money needed to bring it to life through corporate funding, grants, and other sources beyond crowdfunding. That shouldn’t be a problem given the interest the project has drawn from powerful figures in both business and politics in New York.
There’s a rumor that someone in Philidelphia is considering reclaiming some train tunnels beneath the city for something similar. Who knows, in a decade the underground city park might be the thing every city with suitable facilities languishing beneath their feet will be doing. In the meantime, there’s a total of 13 acres of disused subterranean space the Lowline group has already identified as possible future options.
Why Stop With Parks?
If they can transfer sufficient sunlight, then why not grow orchards underground and in warehouses too? Perhaps the day will com that we’ll be able to light entire indoor urban farms using natural sunshine collected in a similar way. They are already growing pineapple in the installation at Lowline Lab. If it’s enough sun energy for pineapples, then the technology should allow one to grow just about any food crop free of the constant cost of electric lights. That’s the really exciting part about this… Zero carbon grow lighting.
- Lowline – the website
- Inside the Lowline – Bloomberg
- Digging the Lowline – The Awl