The Lowline Project: Science Fiction or a Step Toward Sustainable Urban Planning?


The Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal, located below Delancey Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, opened in 1908 and remained one of the largest trolley terminals in the city until its closure in 1948. Despite the opening of the JMZ subway stop at Essex Street directly adjacent to the terminal, as well as the rapid development of the lower east side, the terminal has remained unused for almost six decades.

James Ramsey, an architect and optics specialist, and Dan Barasch, a former fundraiser and strategic planner for Google, were introduced to the space in 2009, while Ramsey was experimenting with “solar irrigation” and Barasch was searching for a venue for an underground art gallery. The two recognized the potential of such a massive space in one of the most densely populated areas in the city, as well as the beautifully preserved features of the terminal such as the remnant cobblestone floors, crisscrossing rail tracks, and vaulted ceilings. They determined to work in conjunction to beautify the space.

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An image of the intended location and size of the Lowline Park at the former Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal (published by the Lowline Project).

In 2011, they released their concept in New York Magazine for The Lowline, an underground park in the Williamsburg Terminal.

At first, the idea of a park under the surface of the New York City streets sounds outlandish and almost certainly impossible; however with the use of Ramsey’s technology for “solar irrigation”, this seemingly futuristic feat is a modern feasibility. Utilizing this approach, sunlight passes through a parabolic glass on solar collecting dishes above the surface, which concentrate the intensity of this light at one focal point. The light is then directed underground through fiberoptic helio-tubes, and finally redistributed by reflective domes once underground, providing natural sunlight to a relativity large area. These dishes are further equipped with tracking mechanisms that follow the sun’s path throughout the year, ensuring the optimal collection of sunlight.

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A simplified diagram of the Solar Irrigation technology developed by James Ramsey (published by the Lowline Project).

In September 2012, the Lowline team constructed a full scale prototype of this technology in an abandoned warehouse in the Lower East Side, proving that it could transmit the necessary intensity and wavelengths of light to foster photosynthesis, and that electricity would not be needed to operate the park during daylight hours. Most recently, in October of 2014, The Lowline Prototype was expanded and reopened at 40 Essex Street, a former market building, also in the Lower East Side, that is located merely a few blocks from the Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal, the intended location of the park. This new prototype denoted officially as The Lowline Lab, features a collection of wooden terracing, adapted metal canopy, and live greenery. With a total area of approximately 1,200 square feet, the Lowline Lab constitutes about five percent of the actual intended Lowline Space. However the Lab’s central corridor is a fabricated terraced plywood canyon surrounded on both sides by hanging gardens, and designed in imitation of the popularly visited Antelope Canyon in Lake Powell Tribal Park, Arizona. The canyon is designed in such a manner that visitors walking through the corridor are surrounded entirely by foliage, simulating the experience visitors will have when walking through the completed park.

Further, all sixty species of plants in the Lowline Lab are completely real and naturally grown, allowing for New Yorkers to see vibrant foliage which subsists in all seasons and beyond the realm of its natural biomes, providing invaluable recreational and educational experiences. Even more exciting is that some of these plants, such as pineapple, mint, thyme, and strawberry are even edible, presenting an opportunity for the Lowline project to contribute to combating hunger in the future. This would be particularly helpful in the winter season when hunger affects the most New Yorkers, due to the fact that the Lowline will be able to sustain its own stable climate. The Lowline will be open to the public through March of 2016, before such time that the lab will be expanded once again.

With endorsement from politicians, such as Senator Kristen Gillibrand and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, local celebrities such as Spike Jonze and Lena Dunham, as well as many Lower East Side Businesses, The Lowline has attracted media attention and garnered a significant following. The objective of the project is now to complete negotiations with the MTA, the organization that currently owns the terminal, and the New York City government, in order to finalize legalities and begin fundraising to construct The Lowline, which they hope to be completed in 2018.

To follow the progress of The Lowline or to donate to the project, go to and follow the Lowline Team @lowlinenyc on Twitter.