The Lowline, New York’s First Underground Park, Is Taking Shape (Slowly)

Inspired by the iconic High Line, there’s now a new park in New York’s future, in an abandoned trolley station. What once was a concept is slowly becoming reality.

New York’s High Line walkway has inspired dozens of city re-purposing projects around the world, including a somewhat counterintuitive one in the city itself: the Lowline. A project to redevelop an old trolley stop underneath the Lower East Side, the Lowline is a gritty first-cousin of the more illustrious tourist attraction on the west side. But whether it actually sees the light of day is still an open question.


Its backers hope a new exhibit on Essex Street, two blocks from the proposed site, will help people to imagine the possibilities. The Lowline Lab is meant as a taster of what the real Lowline could eventually become: a plant-filled “subterranean oasis” for LESers who currently lack green-spaces.

The Lab, which is about 5% of the size of actual space, features hundreds of plants and the same innovative system that will be used to bring natural light underground from the street above. That includes three solar collectors on ground level, each programmed by computer to track the sun’s rays. The light is collected into tubes, fed underground, and then dispersed by an elegant roofing panel designed by James Ramsey of Raad Studio (Ramsey, Arup, an engineering firm, and Lorne Whitehead, a physics professor at the University of British Columbia designed an earlier version of the panel).

“It’s about repurposing a piece of industrial infrastructure for people,” says Signe Nielsen of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, and a board-member on the Lowline project. “In New York, we have a short supply of public space we can use all year around. We have community centers and libraries, but we don’t have public open space.”

The one catch: The Lowline has yet to receive funding or permission from the space’s owners, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. But Nielsen hopes the project could be finalized in 2020, if all goes according to plan (the High Line required some convincing of the authorities before it could get off the ground, as well).

If so, it could not only demonstrate the ingenuity of New Yorkers to redevelop public space. It could also offer a model to underground places everywhere. If we can grow plants under Delancey Street, then why not in parking garages and subway stations everywhere?

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.