New York City Approves The Lowline, The World’s First Underground Park

It once seemed like a crazy dream, but now–with the government’s blessing–its designers can try to make it a reality.


The forecast for the planet’s future isn’t so great lately, so it might be time to start thinking about relocating underground. To help us lead happy lives below grade, we’re probably going to need some sort of park land.


The Lowline is an ambitious plan to redevelop an old trolley stop, idle for the last 80 years beneath New York City’s Lower East Side, and turn it into a one-acre park. Its name echoes another groundbreaking park project, the Highline, built in Manhattan on old elevated railroad tracks in the last decade. The city–which gave the Lowline the formal go-ahead on Thursday–is calling it the world’s first underground park.

Alex Goldmark

That probably isn’t strictly true; places like Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky may take issue. But it will be very different: The project, co-founded by a former NASA engineer and architect, plans to use a system of solar collectors and reflectors to deliver sunlight underground and grow plants. Its creators say no electricity would be needed to light the space during the day, and they’ve set up a small demonstration, the Lowline Lab, to show off how it would work, take community feedback, and serve as a learning center. They say it has attracted 70,000 visitors so far.

Deputy mayor for housing and economic development Alicia Glen, in an interview with Co.Exist, acknowledged there’s the risk the project won’t come to fruition, but she says “those are the kinds of risks that we should be taking as a city.” “This is all upside. There’s a chance to take the unbelievable advances in technology and the creative spirit of New York and harness it to create a public space that no one could have imagined,” she says.

The approval is only a first step to making the project a reality. The team will have one year to reach a $10 million fundraising target, out of an estimated $80 million total budget, and complete schematic designs for approval, and they also have to engage with the community and hold 5 to 10 public design charrettes. Glen says the city could consider contributing money to its construction if the project team applied down the road, but that it’s not a given. So far, the city has just given them control of the space and is helping to coordinate among many public agencies that would be involved in such a large subterranean project. The goal is to start construction somewhere around 2019, she says.

“The city laid out a really clear pathway for what our priorities are for the next year,” says Lowline project co-founder and executive director Dan Barasch. Raising $10 million, he says, will likely come for a variety of sources, as funds have to date, including foundations, corporate sponsorships, private individuals, and crowdfunding. And a big part of the community engagement will involve making sure neighbors–some of whom fear more gentrification and hordes visiting the area–feel happy about the project. He hopes to run the design charettes starting in the fall.


If it’s successful, the hope is that the Lowline will be influential to cities everywhere.

“There are a lot of old cities that are grappling with how to repurpose old spaces that are no longer used in the way they were originally intended,” Glen says. “When people realize how successful things like the Highline or Brooklyn Bridge Park have been, then it has a domino effect…but you first have to have the proof of concept.”

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[All Images (unless otherwise noted): via The Lowline]

This story was updated with quotes and input from Dan Barasch.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire