Sunlight projects over rolling mounds of rich green foliage, radiantly colorful flowers and sodden mosses. A winding path runs through the landscape, where couples walk hand-in-hand as children play inside a nearby cave.
It’s not what one would expect to see in an abandoned market on a November day in New York City.
The scene comes to life as a working experiment of the future on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, inside the Lowline Lab at 140 Essex St., formerly known as the Essex Street Market. Thanks to innovative new solar technology developed by James Ramsey of Raad Studio, the lab is able to capture natural sunlight and direct it inside the windowless space to support photosynthesis and allow plants and trees to grow.
Ramsey and his team are planning to use their findings to create the world’s first underground park, the Lowline, in a vacant trolley terminal two blocks away from the lab. Their vision is to add “more of the green space we all need” in a densely urban environment, and set a precedent for cities around the world to follow.
“My first impression was like, that’s not possible, parks are things with benches on the ground outside,” said Veronica Vasquez, 16, one of the lab’s employees.
“But I guess that’s the magic of the Lowline space, that it’s never been done before.”
What to Expect in the Lab
The centerpiece of the lab is a 1,000 square foot island composed of more than 3,000 sprawling plants. Overhead, a parabolic ceiling canopy resembling the cover of a golf ball directs reflected sunlight onto the greenery. On the roof of the building, “remote skylights” track the sun’s movement throughout the day and collect its rays, channeling them through mirrors and tubes into the canopy below.
The shape of the canopy is designed to modulate and temper the sunlight, mimicking the natural condition of the sky. As clouds pass in front of the sun, the light inside of the lab darkens accordingly. With little additional lighting, the lab has sustained healthy plants for more than a year.
The wildly successful experiment is delivering a promising outlook for the full-scale Lowline, according to a lab assistant. Sub-tropical plants, or those that need less sunlight, have performed “really, really, really well,” the lab assistant said. At the epicenter of the exhibit, where the sunlight is distributed, non sub-tropical plants have been able to thrive too.
Furthermore, plants that are adapted to low light also give off very high levels of oxygen. This means that the plants act as their own air filtration system for the space.
“The second you water them, they turn it into oxygen,” the lab assistant said.
“I walk in the front door, and I can smell if they just watered them, and there will be a regular watering system in the park.”
Temperature control will also be a factor, as sub-tropical plants can only survive between 60 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The lab staff is testing various renewable sources for heating and cooling the lab and the park when the seasons change. Thus, the park will be open year-round.
“I’m sure it would be more of a destination in the winter just because it’s inside,” said Emily Heger, 23, of Manhattan.
How You Can Help
In July, City Hall gave conditional approval for the Lowline, which is scheduled to open as early as 2021. While the space in the trolley terminal is theirs to use, the Lowline team must meet certain conditions before construction actually begins. These conditions include connecting with the community, submitting final design proposals, and raising $10 million.
Donations from those who visit the lab during its weekend hours make it self-sufficient, the lab assistant said. The Lowline staff hopes that if they reach the $10 million mark, the city will then help provide the remaining $70 million it will take to build the park.
Approximately 45,000 people have visited the lab, and it seems that support for the project will continue to grow as long as the plants do.
“I think it’s intriguing,” said Mimi Johnston, 56, visiting from Seattle, Washington.
“Given the possible future of our world, being underground might not be such a bad thing.”