In New York City, a Vibrant Green Space Emerges...Underground

The Lower East Side’s Lowline will be a public green space built inside an abandoned trolley terminal.

(Photo: Lowline)
Amy DuFault is a writer and editor whose work has been published in EcoSalon, Huffington Post, Ecouterre, Organic Spa, Coastal Living, Yahoo!,

Many New Yorkers will tell you they can’t imagine life without the city’s most coveted green space, The High Line. Built in the 1930s, as part of a massive public-private infrastructure project called the West Side Improvement, the track (now a pathway) was designed to lift freight traffic 30 feet in the air, removing dangerous trains from the streets of Manhattan’s largest industrial district. Now used as an elevated public park, the city anxiously awaits the birth of an underground sibling, the Lowline.

The Lowline site was entirely unaffected by the storm (Sandy), and has proven to be incredibly resilient over the last six decades of neglect.

Lowline cofounders James Ramsey and Daniel Barasch asked themselves where they could build a new green space for an overcrowded New York City. Just down the street (and underground) from their own offices on the Lower East Side lay the former Williamsburg Trolley Terminal, which was opened in 1903 as a “depot for streetcars ferrying passengers between Williamsburg and the Lower East Side.”

The terminal was in service until 1948, when streetcar service was discontinued, and has not been used ever since. Ramsey and Barasch say despite six decades of neglect, the space still retains some incredible features, like remnant cobblestones, crisscrossing rail tracks and vaulted ceilings: a designer and architect’s dream.

An exciting focus of the project is remote skylights, designed by Ramsey and Raad Studio, which will deliver sunlight below ground by using advanced optical systems that channel light through fiberoptic cables. The light will allow for photosynthesis and natural greenery to occur far from the actual sun’s eye.

TakePart recently caught up with Lowline cofounder Daniel Barasch to see where the park planning was at post-Sandy and how they plan to turn such a dark space into a vibrant, green underground community.

TakePart: What is it about the creation of the Lowline that seems to be hitting a cultural nerve (in a good way)?

Daniel Barasch: We believe the Lowline is hitting a cultural nerve for a few reasons. It taps into essential human needs—made even more intense in a crowded city like New York—to connect with nature and to convene in public spaces as communities. 

Put more simply, everyone loves parks and wants more of them. It also is compelling on an intellectual level...the introduction of solar technology into subterranean environments and the renovation of abandoned urban infrastructure provide myriad cutting-edge challenges in design, engineering, and technology. And it also taps into a neighborhood-specific narrative of social and economic justice: If other neighborhoods get to enjoy beautiful public spaces, why not the Lower East Side?

TakePart: Is it still feasible to build an underground park in New York City post-Sandy and what has your team learned from the hurricane?

Daniel Barasch: The Lowline site was entirely unaffected by the storm, and has proven to be incredibly resilient over the last six decades of neglect. It is far enough away from the East River and the 500-year floodline that it is unlikely to experience the kind of flooding seen on the City's coastlines and in Lower Manhattan. But our team is very much focused on building a 21st-century, cutting-edge design for an underground park—whereas most New Yorkers associate underground spaces with the dilapidated, early 20th century design that characterizes much of the current subway system.

TakePart: I heard you say in another interview that your lights were a form of "ancient technology" to collect light. Could the project also work with ancient technologies to utilize water?

Daniel Barasch: Fascinating idea, and one we would love to explore in the design phase of the project...stay tuned!

TakePart: Have you considered creating an underground park model that other cities could emulate?

Daniel Barasch: As we've been sharing the project on a global level, we've heard enormous interest in underground innovation from many folks in cities like Chicago, Beijing, Detroit, and Ankara. We would love to consider other opportunities—both in New York City and far beyond the five boroughs—to introduce innovative park-like designs into abandoned underground sites.  But we have our work cut out for us here on the Lower East Side, with a very special site that is our current focus for the years to come.

TakePart: Where is the project at right now in terms of launching/being open to the public?

Daniel Barasch: This year was an amazing year for us...we raised over $500,000 to help produce two technology exhibits, conduct a preliminary planning study, and refine our designs and community outreach. Our focus in 2013 is to build upon the broad community support we've received to date, and gain official City approval to transform the site into a vibrant public space. 

We actively need support for ongoing design, research and advocacy, and supporters can get involved now via thelowline.org/donate or our holiday gift campaign at thelowline.org/shop. We hope that this time next year, we'll have permission to build and can roll up our sleeves with developers, setting up a timetable for construction. It took the High Line 10 years to open its first segment; the Lowline will also be a long haul. But we think it's worth it, and we're not giving up until it becomes a beautiful, crazy, inspiring reality.

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