A park underneath the hustle and bustle of New York City

Dan Barasch and James Ramsey have a crazy plan — to create a park, filled with greenery, underneath New York City. The two are developing the Lowline, an underground greenspace the size of a football field. They're building it in a trolley terminal abandoned in 1948, using technology that harvests sunlight above-ground and directs it down below. It's a park that can thrive, even in winter.

My dream is to build the world's first underground park in New York City. Now, why would someone want to build an underground park, and why in New York City?

These three tough little buggers are, on the left, my grandmother, age five, and then her sister and brother, ages 11 and nine. This photo was taken just before they left from Italy to immigrate to the United States, just about a century ago. And like many immigrants at the time, they arrived on the Lower East Side in New York City and they encountered a crazy melting pot. What was amazing about their generation was that they were not only building new lives in this new, unfamiliar area, but they were also literally building the city. I've always been fascinated by those decades and by that history, and I would often beg my grandmother to tell me as many stories as possible about the old New York. But she would often just shrug it off, tell me to eat more meatballs, more pasta, and so I very rarely got any of the history that I wanted to hear about.

The New York City that I encountered felt pretty built up. I always knew as a kid that I wanted to make a difference, and to somehow make the world more beautiful, more interesting and more just. I just didn't really know how. At first, I thought I wanted to go work abroad, so I took a job with UNICEF in Kenya. But it felt weird to me that I knew more about local Kenyan politics than the politics of my own hometown. I took a job with the City of New York, but very quickly felt frustrated with the slowness of government bureaucracy. I even took a job at Google, where very fast I drank the Kool-Aid and believed almost wholeheartedly that technology could solve all social problems. But I still didn't feel like I was making the world a better place.

It was in 2009 that my friend and now business partner James Ramsey alerted me to the location of a pretty spectacular site, which is this. This is the former trolley terminal that was the depot for passengers traveling over the Williamsburg Bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and it was open between 1908 and 1948, just around the time when my grandparents were living right in the area. And we learned also that the site was entirely abandoned in 1948. Fascinated by this discovery, we begged the authorities to draw us into the space, and we finally got a tour, and this is what we saw. Now, this photo doesn't really do it justice. It's kind of hard to imagine the unbelievably magical feeling that you have when you get in this space. It's a football field of unused land immediately below a very crowded area of the city, and it almost feels like you're Indiana Jones on an archaeological dig, and all the details are all still there. It's really pretty remarkable.

Now, the site itself is located at the very heart of the Lower East Side, and today it still remains one of the most crowded neighborhoods in the city. New York City has two thirds the green space per resident as other big cities, and this neighborhood as one tenth the green space. So we immediately started thinking about how we could take this site and turn it into something that could be used for the public, but also could potentially even be green. Our plan, in a nutshell, is to draw natural sunlight underground using a simple system that harvests sunlight above the street, directs it below the city sidewalks, and would allow plants and trees to grow with the light that's directed underneath. With this approach, you could take a site that looks like this today and transform it into something that looks like this.

In 2011, we first released some of these images, and what was funny was, a lot of people said to us, "Oh, it kind of looks like the High Line underground." And so what our nickname ended up becoming, and what ended up sticking, was the Lowline, so the Lowline was born. What was also clear was that people really wanted to know a lot more about how the technology would look and feel, and that there was really much more interest in this than we had ever thought possible. So, like a crazy person, I decided to quit my job and focus entirely on this project. Here is us with our team putting together a technology demonstration in a warehouse. Here's the underbelly of this solar canopy which we built to show the technology. You can see the six solar collectors at the center there. And here's the full exhibit all put together in this warehouse. You can see the solar canopy overhead, the light streaming in, and this entirely live green space below. So in the course of just a few weeks, tens of thousands of people came to see our exhibit, and since that time, we've grown our numbers of supporters both locally and among design enthusiasts all over the world.

Here's a rendering of the neighborhood just immediately above the Line's site, and a rendering of how it will look after major redevelopment that is coming over the course of the next 10 years. Notice how crowded the neighborhood still feels and how there's really a lack of green space. So what we're proposing is really something that will add one football field of green space underneath this neighborhood, but more importantly will introduce a really community-driven focus in a rapidly gentrifying area. And right now, we're focusing very closely on how we engage with the City of New York on really transforming the overall ecosystem in an integrated way.

Here's our rendering of how we would actually invite people into the space itself. So here you see this iconic entrance in which we would literally peel up the street and reveal the historical layers of the city, and invite people into this warm underground space. In the middle of winter, when it's absolutely freezing outside, the last place you'd want to go would be an outdoor space or outdoor park. The Lowline would really be a four-season space and a respite for the city. So I like to think that the Lowline actually brings my own family's story full circle. If my grandparents and my parents were really focused on building the city up and out, I think my generation is focused on reclaiming the spaces that we already have, rediscovering our shared history, and reimagining how we can make our communities more interesting, more beautiful and more just.