Digging deep: is the future of green space underground?

As available land becomes more scarce, developers are looking at the space beneath our feet as an answer to the lack of green areas in urban centres. Most notably, New York has begun work on what many are calling the world’s first underground park. Called the Lowline this nod to the city’s above-ground High Line green space will look to turn the former Williamsburg Bridge trolley terminal, located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, into a subterranean green space for residents and tourists.

The terminal, which opened in 1908 on Delancey Street, once helped to transport the residents of Manhattan from the Lower East Side to Brooklyn. It was closed to the public in 1948, and remained unused and forgotten until 2009, when James Ramsey, owner of the Lower East Side design firm Raad Studio, was introduced to the facility. He was so inspired by the historical space that he began looking at ways to grow plants there, using solar technology. He eventually teamed up with Dan Barasch of the tech think tank PopTech, and the idea for the Lowline was born.

Despite receiving an overwhelming response to both initial fundraising and multiple planning studies, the logistics of maintaining an underground park still needed to be addressed. To demonstrate how they would pull off growing grass and trees without direct sunlight, Ramsey and Barasch compiled an exhibition entitled Imagining the Lowline. A functioning, full-scale model of the solar technology, designed by Ramsey, was displayed in 2012 at a warehouse directly above the site.

The mechanics involve a remote skylight where sunlight passes through a glass shield placed above ground, directly over the Lowline. The captured sunlight is then directed underground through a helio tube, made from fibre-optic cable. At that point, a large dome reflects and distributes the channelled sunlight to help sustain the flora. Although the exhibition was temporary, the technology is now on public display at The Lowline Lab.

In keeping with the project’s ethos – one that looks to engage the surrounding community through programming and youth activities – the team also created the Young Designers Programme in 2013.

The summer-long education initiative worked with young people interested in science, technology, engineering, art and maths. Attendees were given the opportunity to have their say in the kind of public space they would like the Lowline to become. Many of these projects went on to be displayed at the Mark Miller Gallery in 2014 and again in March last year.

Though plans were officially given the green light by New York officials in July, the Lowline team still needs to raise more funds, plus finalise and submit detailed plans for further approval during the next 12 months, before construction can commence. In the meantime, residents and tourists can still enjoy The Lowline Lab, which is open until March next year, located two blocks from the proposed Lowline site.

This free community is home to more than 70 species of plants, all of which are sustained by natural and artificial light, and plays host to various cultural and community events. It’s open to the public and has attracted more than 60,000 visitors to date.

It’s well worth a visit, and will help you imagine what future green spaces may look like in an increasingly urbanised world.


Published: September 14, 2016 04:00 AM


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