The success of New York’s High Line park has inspired urban planners around the globe to refashion unused infrastructure into soaring parks. And now, it has inspired something close to its opposite: The LowLine, an underground park whose fundraising drive is kicking off today on Kickstarter. If successful, it might eventually become the most massive project ever begun by the crowd-funding website. For now, the visionaries behind the LowLine are hoping to raise $100,000 to create mock-ups of their technology that will bring natural light into the space.
That technology was conceived by the LowLine’s founders, Dan Barasch and James Ramsey, and would use fiber optic cables to fill the subterranean space with natural light and living plants. The proposed site is an unused and long neglected 13-acre former subway stop on Delancey Street, built in 1903 in New York’s Lower East Side. While they imagine the park serving the local community it is found in, they also imagine this park becoming a model for the reappropriation of other, long-forgotten gems found in cities all over the world. It’s the kind of space that childhood daydreams are made of.
"I was talking to my mom the other day," said Barasch, "and she asked me how long we’d actually been working on this project. … It’s only been really two to three months of taking this more seriously and having it not just live in our heads. We’re really just three months into this. But the speed with which this project has gained momentum is astonishing." Ramsey agrees and chimes in, "There’s a collective cultural longing that is making this project strike a chord. We are all feeling weary of cheap, new, modern. There is a throwback to previous eras of slow, local, community. "
But the project isn’t simply an attempt to recapture the past. It is a conflation of a few really big trends, and some almost sci-fi, futuristic technology.
Ramsey, a former NASA satellite engineer and current principal at RAAD studios, has developed a series of fiber-optic tubes specifically for this project. The use of this kind of green tech is usually confined to massive projects in far away places, experiments on the edge of actually being built. Ramsey is adamant that it’ll work, and will make accessible what has previously been hidden in the depths. "That process of discovery, of finding something like this that was lurking beneath the surface, was something that I found so compelling, that I felt like, this experience, this space, was something that needed to be shared with more people. One of the easiest ways to get people to consider a space like this would be to introduce natural sunlight," says Ramsey.
"In the early days, urban design was something that happened and was sort of presented. We’ve learned a lot of lessons from the community-centered approach. It’s a sign of our times, that building and design development is something the community thinks about a lot more," says Barasch.
Having learned much from the Highline, the LowLine aims to be a beautiful, public space that is created with the input of the community from the very beginning. Barasch and Ramsey are spending the next 12 months before the MTA’s request for proposals is due, engaging the community in this Lower East Side neighborhood. They will be presenting the park project at high schools and community meetings, making the space a focused studio and working with students at The Columbia University School of Architecture, in a studio led by Jürgen Mayer H and Mark Kushner, as well as working with the consulting firm Purpose to explore new ways of engaging people online—everything they can think of to get a dialog going and incorporate feedback into the process.
"It sounds really douchey to say it like this," says Barasch, "but it’s kind of like crowd sourcing the uses of an amazing space, and then letting people use it in potentially unintended ways."
Today’s Kickstarter campaign is meant to be a start. Eventually, they hope to fund an event drawing on the legendary artists and musicians who have made the Lower East Side the mecca of the creative community that it is. To that end, the keyword for the design process is conservation—the original architecture of vaulted ceilings and railroad tiles, and the surrounding fabric of the neighborhood.
Dan Barasch lives on the LES, and he’s got a stake in it. "We want to preserve all we can of this shared legacy. The LES has always been rock and roll, and that’s not something we want to tone down so much that we lose it," he says. "Right now it’s dirty and wild and vast. It’s the magic of what’s to come"