New York’s latest project? The Lowline Lab

Hot on the heels of the High Line, the elevated railway turned park which is now one of New York City’s best loved attractions, there comes a bold newcomer. Following the same tradition of cutting edge conceptual development, imaginative design and community involvement, a new way of injecting green space into the Big Apple’s concrete jungle is underway. It’s officially called Delancey Underground but unsurprisingly, everyone’s nicknamed it the Lowline.


A small group of talented individuals led by James Ramsey and Dan Barasch have been working on trialling a technology which would enable natural sunlight to be harvested and transferred underground in order to grow plants for a subterranean garden. The Lowline Lab, as the testing site is called, houses around three thousand plants in the former market building on Essex Street. It occupies a site about 5% of the proposed end result, large enough to give the visitor a sense of what the Lowline might one day be like.


This Lower East Side location has not been selected by chance. In fact, this is one of the most built up areas of a city blessed with squares and neighbourhood parks. A growing population and substantial redevelopment in the LES puts paid to any hopes of removing concrete and tarmac from any above-ground real estate so burrowing underground was the logical choice. With a suitable location identified – the long abandoned Williamsburg Bridge trolley terminal – all that had to happen was for technology to catch up.


Working in collaboration with a number of specialist firms, the committed Lowline staff and volunteers have developed an impressive system of mirrors and tubes which feed light off the street and into the dark depths of the derelict market. Last October, the project set about testing whether plants could survive the New York winter when shorter daylight hours in theory wouldn’t provide the right environment for them to thrive. In fact, the opposite has been true and it has even proved possible to grow viable plants from seed. Spanish moss hangs from the ceiling, trailing down towards a plywood platform carpeted in shade tolerant ferns, exotic succulents and verdant shrubs. Seedlings labelled with lolly sticks emphasise the newness and experimental nature of the project.


With the market earmarked by developers, the Lowline Lab was set to close in March 2016 but a stay of execution was granted as the developers postponed their plans. Now, the Lowline Lab will be open to visitors until at least March 2017. This extension has brought with it new challenges, not least a plethora of pesky insects that have been as thrilled to move into their new neighbourhood digs as the human residents have been to repurpose them. Undeterred, the Lowline team have implemented a series of measures that will ensure that the experience of visiting this innovative underground garden isn’t marred by a thick cloud of midges. Nematodes have been placed in the soil to good effect, though the introduction of carnivorous plants has been less successful, partly because visitors have been tempted to touch their snapping jaws themselves.


With feasibility studies complete, politicians and community groups on side, support (though not funds) from owners MTA and a steady stream of interested visitors to the Lab itself, there are just a few fundraising and logistical hurdles to overcome. It seems the project could well come to fruition. At present, the team are confident they’ll have the Lowline up and running by 2020 or thereabouts. In the meantime, I’d strongly recommend that if you’re in New York one weekend before next March you take a trip down to 140 Essex Street and check out the Lab for yourself.

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