Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

A Look Inside the Lowline, New York City’s First Underground Park

It’s not an urban sci-fi fantasy: Someone is actually building a leafy underground park below Delancey Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The Lowline is a plan to turn an abandoned trolley terminal there into a public green space, using special technology that pipes in sunlight beneath the street’s surface. The real deal probably won’t be ready until 2020, but this week the creators opened the Lowline Lab, a proof of concept and an experiment for seeing the ideas and tech in action. We got an early look inside.

  1. The Lowline Lab

    The Lowline Lab

    This collection of wooden terracing, metal canopy, and live plants is the Lowline Lab. At just over 1,200 square feet, it’s about 5 percent the size of the actual Lowline space, but it’s big enough that if you stand in the center you get a sense of what the full park might feel like. It will be open through at least March 2016, letting the designers see how the structures and plants react to a New York City winter, and might evolve over time.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  2. The Creator

    The Creator

    James Ramsey is the man responsible for the Lowline. Along with co-founder and Executive Director Dan Barasch, Ramsey started laying plans for an urban underground park in 2008. He’s the one who invented the optical systems that transport the sunlight from above ground to the Lowline and make it suitable for growing plants in otherwise dark spaces.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  3. Entering the Lab

    Entering the Lab

    The Lowline Lab sits at 140 Essex St., a former market building in New York’s Lower East Side. When you enter the lab, you’re greeted by a series of panels explaining the history of the neighborhood, the goals of the Lowline, and the science behind making it work. Those tubes overhead that look like fluorescent lights? They’re actually polycarbonate “plumbing” tubes fitted with mirrors and lenses that bring sunlight from the roof to the interior of the lab. That glow is all from the sun.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  4. Diving In

    Diving In

    Even though the Lowline Lab is a miniature example of the immersive park, the designers want visitors to be able to get a sense of what the finished park will feel like. You can walk through a cutout that runs straight through the middle and discover the plants and structure up close. Because the lab is set in the middle of a larger room, it appears much darker here than it actually is and one of the goals of the Lab is figuring out the best ways to distribute light across the landscapes.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  5. Growing Edible Plants

    Growing Edible Plants

    Yes, all of the plants in the Lowline Lab are real, and some of them are even edible. There are pineapples, mint, thyme, and strawberry plants mixed in with the more decorative ground cover. There over over 60 species of plants in total. Hidden in random places are also spores that will soon be sprouting edible mushrooms sometime in the coming weeks. There’s no plan yet for what will be done with Lowline crops, but Ramsey says he hopes they’ll give kids in New York City an opportunity to see wild plants growing right in their neighborhood.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  6. The Anodized Aluminum Canopy

    The Anodized Aluminum Canopy

    The segmented canopy is critical to making things grow underground. The combination of hexagonal and triangular anodized aluminum panels form a shapable canopy that can adapt to the needs of what’s growing in the lab. The structure can direct light wherever it’s needed at the time, and has the added benefit of keeping the “light plumbing” out of sight, so visitors can enjoy the atmosphere without fixating on the technology.

    Photographer: Stephen Pulvirent/Bloomberg

  7. An Evolving Ecosystem

    An Evolving Ecosystem

    Just before our visit, Ramsey found a tree frog that he says must have been hiding in a fern while the ground cover was being planted. So far it’s the only animal calling the Lowline Lab home, but Ramsey hopes more animals and insects will colonize the lab soon. The idea is that the plants and animals create an ever-evolving ecosystem, just like you’d see with an outdoor park.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  8. Utilizing the Sun

    Utilizing the Sun

    The only artificial light in the Lowline Lab is around the edges of the minipark, and the completed Lowline won’t have any artificial light at all. Light is piped into the plumbing system through mirrored collectors, which focus the sunlight into a concentrated beam that’s 30 times brighter than ambient sunlight. The Lowline itself will use more than 100 of these collectors; Ramsey’s plan is to integrate them seamlessly into the downtown landscape, a significant challenge.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  9. Bringing Light Underground

    Bringing Light Underground

    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 prevents the devices from getting hot (they’d be extremely dangerous otherwise) while keeping the wavelengths needed by plants and animals. These collectors are made by Sun Portal, a Korean company working with the Lowline on the project.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  10. Lenses and Reflectors

    Lenses and Reflectors

    Getting the light underground is one thing, but you can’t just blast a garden with a concentrated beam of sunlight and expect anything good to come of it. A set of lenses is embedded into the canopy, softening the light, and then a chandelier-like set of reflectors further distributes it across the Lowline Lab. By using the canopy, lenses, and reflectors in concert, the team can create a diverse array of conditions across the landscape, ranging from nearly pitch black to brighter than outside.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  11. The Canyon

    The Canyon

    The central corridor of the Lowline Lab is a simulated canyon, made from terraced plywood that contains the gardens. The shape is actually a replica of part of Antelope Canyon, a famous geological formation in Arizona, as another nod to nature. The wood gives the garden its shape, while all the plants are grown in soil just as they would be outdoors. You can see here how the concentration and color of light shift as you move across the landscape. The foliage changes along with it.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

  12. Visiting the Lab

    Visiting the Lab

    The Lowline Lab is open to the public on weekends beginning Saturday, Oct. 17, and will also hold special events in the coming months. During the week it will play host to school groups and community organizations. Ramsey hopes people will visit multiple times between now and the spring so they can see how the lab feels in the depths of winter and how it changes over time.

    Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg