With more than 100,000 visitors counted in a little over a year, a park experiment in New York City will close on Feb. 26. The Lowline Lab is a precursor to a permanent underground park in the works, and according to Executive Director Dan Barasch, the trial run was a success, in terms of plant life and public space.
The Lab is in a dark, windowless 1,000-square-foot warehouse on the Lower East Side. Opened in October 2015, it has served as a testing ground to see if Lowline’s “remote skylights” can provide enough natural light to sustain plant life in the dark. The remote skylights are solar panels on the warehouse roof. They’re mounted on trackers that follow the sun’s path throughout the year. The light collected by the panel is transmitted through fiber-optic cables into dishes in the warehouse that emit light at the wavelengths necessary to support photosynthesis.
“We were primarily interested in seeing if our solar technology design could effectively deliver natural sunlight into dark space at an intensity that would support plants and trees,” Barasch says. “We had over 3,000 plants and most did extraordinarily well. We were even able to grow a variety of edible plants. Strawberries, mint and herbs.”
The Lab experiment also surveyed public interest. NYC’s wildly popular High Line, an open-air elevated park on a former rail line, draws more than 4 million visitors each year, but Barasch says they’re happy with notching over 100,000 guests considering the space is only open to the public on weekends.
The Lowline’s permanent home is two blocks south of the Lab in the disused, underground Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal. When it’s complete in 2021, the Lowline will be part green space with plants and trees, and part cultural space for events and concerts. With over 50,000 square feet to work with, scaling up from the test space will be a challenge. The Lab uses two remote skylights. The Lowline will need 50 to 100.
“We know our solar technology does indeed work to illuminate the underground space,” says Barasch. “The next stage of our research is whether we can do this technically at scale and in a much more complex urban environment.”
Though the solar technology is the project’s primary driver, Barasch says he’s also compelled by the challenge of creating public space in dense urban areas. “How do we take back little corners of our city” he says, “and make them beautiful public spaces that reflect the needs and interests and imaginations of local neighborhoods and communities?”
The scarcity of urban free space also creates conflict between open space advocates and affordable housing advocates. The latter sometimes push back against plans to build new parks, saying housing is a higher priority than green space. Just as often, the opposite happens, with parks advocates fighting new development in the name of green space preservation.
Expensive underground parks likely wouldn’t totally alleviate that conflict. But Barasch thinks the Lowline could ease some tension. “I think we have an idea that hopefully connects to the kinds of things that other urban centers are struggling with,” he says, “when it comes to a [lack of] opportunity for new public space.”
Certainly other cities have taken notice of the Lowline Lab. Officials from as far away as Seoul and Singapore have visited.
“In cold weather you could imagine a Lowline giving much-needed respite for people in the dead of winter. Or in hot places … this could be a more temperate environment for people,” Barasch says.
The Lowline has garnered some criticism because it’s a private-public partnership, a hybrid park-event space and an enclosed space with restricted access. Alexandra Lange, a New York architecture critic, wrote in Curbed New York that it’s less a park than a “high-tech eco-tainment crossed with multipurpose community center with a science and gardening focus.” Lange argued that a restricted space with extra regulations will ultimately serve fewer people in fewer ways than a traditional, aboveground park would.
The people behind Lowline say they want to create a space that meets the needs of the Lower East Side community. They’re planning a series of community design workshops, town halls and focus groups to gather public input on what people want to see in the final design.
In the meantime, if you’re hoping to see the concept in person, Feb. 25 and 26 will be your last chance for a while.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Nation, Pacific Standard, Vice and Crosscut.