Lowline Lab - New York (August 2016)

Every month we will be selecting an interesting public space and will be writing about it. For our first public space highlight of the month, we have selected what is shaping to be the world’s First Underground Park - The Lowline.

Visitor admiring the lower plantings.

After hearing all the "buzz" about how the Lowline is one step closer to becoming a reality, we decided to visit the Lowline Lab in order to explore the mock up of the project. Located at Essex Street Market - a historic food and vendor hall - just a few blocks away from the proposed site, the space is a working proof of concept. It consists of a series of mirrors and tubes located on the roof of the building that serve as collectors, concentrators, irrigators, and distributors of sunlight underground, to activate photosynthesis and create lush year-round gardens.

The installation gives visitors a glimpse of how the same technology could eventually be used in the permanent space, and allows the public to see and interact with the 3,000 plants and 50 different species. Since its opening in October 2015, it has attracted nearly 70,000 visitors and has hosted educational visits for nearly 2,000 kids across New York City. It will remain free and open to the public on weekends through March 2017.

The genesis of the Lowline dates back to its original Kickstarter campaign in 2012. The proposal raised over $155,000 from 3,300 supporters, a new record for the largest number of supporters for an urban design project. It was clear that the world was ready for a new innovative public space. The journey continued by conducting two planning studies that aimed to assess the viability of the project. Both HR&A Advisors and Arup provided solid evidence that this idea was ready to be become a reality, and it was only a matter of time to prove the concept.

In July, the City of New York (NYCEDC) officially supported the project by naming the Lowline as the designated developer of the property. Conditions that come with the approval include community involvement in a series of 5-10 design charrettes, and the raising of $10 million dollars to allow for a more detailed design proposal within the next 12 months.

In an age of ample private funding and an increasingly constrained public sector, the debate continues between skepticism towards government agencies, and concerns with increased private control over public spaces. The Lowline might perhaps be following in the footsteps of a large number of public spaces dependent on privately funded conservancies or "Friends-of" agencies, to maintain and operate their public parks. Reaching $10 million in 12 months could be challenging, but for a project with the amount of exposure and the fundraising track record of the Lowline, it might be an achievable task.

It is important to highlight that a public space is not a technology start-up and as creative as it may be in concept, the Lowline would occupy a real physical space, one in which expectations, tensions, bureaucracies, and histories collide. We need to be critical about 4 important questions: Is the Lowline feasible? Would it be profitable? How much would this new concept cost? And most importantly, how will the public react to this new futuristic concept? Some numbers can be found in an HR&A report that estimates the cost to be between $44 and $72 million to make this a reality. Moreover, it estimates operating costs to be anywhere from $2.4 to $4 million a year, which could be offset with revenue from food and beverage concessions, event rentals, ticketed events, sponsored programs, and donations.

Here at Hive, we have had many discussions and debates about this project, and about its feasibility in the long haul. But feasibility aside, we questioned whether people will prefer to be in an enclosed space versus outdoors, especially when it is pleasant outside. Perhaps people counts increase seasonally, but in the reverse seasons we are used to thinking about when we consider public space (we normally think of activity outdoors in pleasant seasons). Could it, in the cold months, serve as an alternative 'public' space in lieu of being indoors? We have had lengthy discussions about the type of space that the Lowline is - it is after all a new typology of public space. We also questioned whether an underground space could prove to be successful with the public in the long run, in a similar way that the Highline is successful - it also was a new typology of public space. The comparison between the two seems justified, because the Lowline is the 'reverse typology' of the Highline, even if it is a different type of space. They both are innovative and share the ultimate purpose to function as public space.

All questioning aside, we are excited about this project, not only because it offers an innovative redevelopment idea for public spaces, but also because it sets a precedent to a new type of public space and a new model to implement transformation to underground places everywhere. The transformation of a forgotten trolley terminal into a dynamic public space, showcases the power of green technology and proves that not only designers, but also city officials and communities, are beginning to understand that public spaces are evolving and pushing boundaries. It is beginning to show mindset shifts toward futuristic design and the use of technology in the public realm. Let's not forget that technology that is expensive today is perhaps feasible tomorrow.

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