Instant Landscape: The Lowline

Depending on your vision, creating a park can be as easy as bringing in the greenery. Creating that same park underground—as innovators are working to do with the Lowline, the world’s first underground park—requires a whole lot of problem solving. How do you ensure enough sunlight is making it below street-level? How do you choose which plants to put underground?

Last week, project members from Arup, Mathew Nielsen Landscape Architects, and John Mini Distinctive Landscapes took the audience beneath the layers of technology, horticulture, and outreach needed to bring the Lowline into reality.

WHY UNDERGROUND?

“No one looks forward to going into the subway,” says Star Davis (Arup). So why is her team so interested in bringing the jungle beneath the concrete? The draw of underground spaces, which sit quietly beneath cities around the world, lies in their history, present underutilization, and the alien quality of experiencing them.

The chosen site for the Lowline, an erstwhile trolley terminal under the Williamsburg Bridge, is particularly ripe for a park of any altitude. The neighborhood’s park-to-people ratio is less than 12% of the median for high-density cities. While parks have obvious benefits to those living near them—improved health and lower stress—they also offer economic and educational opportunities.

Crowd at the Urban Green Council Lowline Event

WHY NOT JUST SKYLIGHTS?

Bringing daylight underground is not a new idea—designers have been transforming subterranean spaces from the Industrial Era through to today’s Fulton Street subway station.

However, traditional daylighting methods like skylights were out of the question at the Lowline site, with a heavily trafficked road overhead. “Sunlighting”—capturing direct sunlight—is more complicated than daylighting since the sun needs to be tracked using heliostats, recollimated with multiple lenses, and then distributed. While humans are well-adapted to function in a broad range of lighting, how well this high efficiency system is meeting the lighting needs of the plants is still under observation.

ARTIFICIAL, BUT EVOLVING

One of the key goals Lowline designers had was to give the impression of an “instant landscape”—something with immediate personality and impact. This was accomplished with stalactite and stalagmite structures, designed by Signe Nielsen (Mathew Nielsen Landscape Architects), that create stark valleys and ridges of dark and light.

This landscape was near instant indeed—the team had a mere two and a half months to design and create the Lowline Lab, installing over 2,500 plants in a single day (a whopping 90% of which are still alive and well).

The park’s initial community of tropical and subtropical species was chosen for their hardiness and lighting tolerance. Mark Mini and his team (John Mini Distinctive Landscapes) were charged with testing, installing and maintaining the flora of the Lab, and are now experimenting with the viability of a broader range of species, including crops like tomato, strawberry, hops (stay tuned for a craft Lowline beer line), and herbs.

Beyond the reach of wild pollinators, each plant must be hand-pollinated to bear fruit and seed. Yet, this created and managed landscape is still very much an ecosystem, evolving on its own. Engel happily plays the “helpful observer, letting the plants decide”—noting shifting plant groupings and the appearance of slugs, which brought millipedes, which may soon bring other creatures up the food chain. This lively community will hopefully also attract many bipedal visitors.

Crowd at the Urban Green Council Lowline Event

FOR THE PEOPLE

Habitability for both plants and people was put to the test in the winter after the Lowline Lab—a testing ground for the technologies and plant life to be used in the park itself—was opened to the public last October. Lacking mechanical heating, cooling, or ventilation, the team counted on thermal mass to keep the space comfortable.

Ten months and several seasons in, the feedback from visitors has been overwhelmingly positive. Nielsen proudly displayed a bar chart showing post-visit emotions from over 1,000 people surveyed—over 60% of visitors felt “inspired” and over 70% “calm” and “happy.” Public workshops on crafts, soil health, yoga are already being held in the Lab and the team envisions the full Lowline to include areas for food vendors, performances, exercise, and more.

While the project’s name may be a play on the High Line to the northwest, this analogy has heightened fears of gentrification for local residents, despite the team stressing that the park is meant to “serve the community and not developers.”

The Lowline team was recently conditionally designated the leaseholder for the site and now have a year to submit the full schematic design. They will also have to raise $12 million and continue extensive community outreach efforts on the way to the realization of the park by the target date of 2020.

See the sunlit, subterranean landscape for yourself—the Lab is now open every weekend!

About the authors

Rena Lee
Rena is the Communications Associate at Urban Green Council.