Street Spotlight: New York City’s Lowline

The Down Low

Taking its name from the groundbreaking “Highline” project in New York (a 2km-long linear park built on a disused, elevated railway section), the Lowline was an ambitious plan to redevelop a one-acre trolley stop and convert it into a below ground park. The site, located beneath New York City’s Lower East Side, had not been used in more than 60 years, and featured a public installation in 2012, which developed into a working prototype in 2015. The project was originally proposed on crowd-funding website Kickstarter by James Ramsey and Dan Barasch in 2011. It went on to raise $150,000 USD, along with significant media attention, and backing by politicians and entrepreneurs alike.

The Lowline Lab

In October 2015, the Lowline Lab was opened to the public in an abandoned market building located just a few blocks away from the proposal site. The purpose of the Lab was to showcase the technology and systems that would go on to be used by the full-scale project. A combination of natural light (via a series of complex downlights) and artificial supplements were used to grow more than 3,000 plants (made up of over 70 different species), with visitors being able to experience the Lab on weekends.

The Lab was originally scheduled to close in March 2016, but due to overwhelming popularity (around 2,100 visitors per weekend during the first six months!), the tenancy was extended through to March 2017. After witnessing the substantial positive community sentiment that the project gained – along with hosting successful community events, art installations, and educational events – the Lowline was officially approved by the city’s Economic Development Corporation on the 13th of July, 2016.

Implications for Urban Spaces

The technology used by the Lowline Lab in its proof of concept revolves around using a “remote skylight” that captures light during the day through a parabolic glass shield (imagine a giant magnifying glass), which then focusses the light directly down a fibre optic cable and releases it into a reflective underground dome (like a big heat lamp). Now that the project has been approved for a full-scale build, this technology will increasingly become available to other projects wishing to achieve a similar result.

While the benefits of converting underground spaces to functional “outdoor” areas are amazing (especially in cities where population density is already an issue), the Lowline project demonstrates the ingenuity required to redevelop and repurpose unused spaces. With the development slated to reach completion in 2020, it won’t be long before we see plants thriving in parking garages, subways, and basements around the world!

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