High hopes for NYC’s ‘Lowline’: The quest to grow gardens underground

The future of urban green space is blossoming 22 feet below the concrete jungle that is New York City’s Lower East Side.

It’s called the “Lowline.” Billed as the world’s first underground park, it will be a subterranean version of the city’s popular High Line, an elevated green oasis built on defunct railroad tracks.

The project itself is years away. Its backers have $0 of the estimated $70 million they’ll need to get it going.

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But a small-scale prototype of the space-age garden just opened up down the block, giving tourists, students and passersby the chance to check out the buried green space.

The unique environment is a testing ground for the ultimate plan, which is to turn an abandoned 1908 trolley terminal into a football field-sized underground garden by 2020. Project co-founder James Ramsey says they hope to grow 60 species down there — “from mosses and ferns to strawberries and even pineapples.”

How will they pull it off? By harnessing the sun’s rays using giant mirror-like “heliostats,” magnifying those rays, transporting them underground through a fibre-optic “helio tube,” then using a dome to disperse them across the green space.

Ramsey likens it to an elaborate plumbing system. He admits it’s a “kooky” idea.

The architecture firm owner and former NASA engineer had the brainstorm in 2009 when he learned of the long-forgotten trolley terminal.

His friend Dan Barasch was exploring a project that would bring art to the city’s subway system. The two combined their interests into the idea of an underground garden.

“It’s almost sort of a new form of horticulture that we’ve developed,” the 38-year-old said. “The conditions we’re creating are really quite specialized and unlike any existing environment in the world.”

He said NASA uses similar optical devices on a much smaller scale.

“We have a self-contained environment almost a bit like The Martian.

(Spoiler alert: In that film, Matt Damon finds a way to grow crops on Mars.)

In addition to looking cool, Ramsey said, the Lowline would also provide badly needed green space, which is at a premium in NYC’s concrete jungle.

“I think one of the big challenges here is, ‘Okay, we [build] up, up, up. But that just means we’re increasing the density of our cities. And as our cities become more dense, we have to get a little more innovative about solutions for creating space for people,” he said.

“This is one potential solution.”

This Aug. 15, 2012, photo provided The Lowline shows the abandoned trolley terminal deep underground in New York’s Lower East Side, which may one day house a park. The project-in-the-works, history meets 21st century technology; will employ the latest solar technology to illuminate the subterranean space, filtering the sun via a collector at street level. (AP Photo/The Lowline, Danny Fuchs)

Rendering of the Lowline, courtesy of Raad Studio.

The newly-opened Lowline Lab serves as a testing ground for the actual Lowline, mimicking its environment and using its technology to keep the greenery alive.

The lab has only three of the roughly 200 heliostats that would be required for the actual Lowline.

Visitors can drop in for free every weekend until March 2016 to experience the space firsthand. During the week, students visit on field trips to learn about the science, technology, engineering, art and math behind the project.

Lowline co-founder Dan Barasch told CBS News that the idea has the potential to be used in many other kinds of contexts.

“There are a lot of spaces from hospitals to prisons to schools that don’t have natural access to the sun,” Barasch said.

But even if this experiment works, it could be tough to replicate.

For one thing, it’s pricey: The Lowline team raised about $200,000 in its second Kickstarter campaign. That was just to fund the lab. Up to $70 million more will be needed to get the actual project off the ground.

A financing campaign will be launched once negotiations over the land are complete with the city and Municipal Transit Authority (the land is currently leased to the MTA by the city). The backers hope to get some of the cash from crowdfunding and government grants.

Seed money, one could say, to grow their unorthodox brand of urban agriculture.

Follow @TrishKozicka

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