Behind the doorway of a hulking, unassuming warehouse on Essex Street, a fascinating—and potentially game-changing—experiment is taking place. This is where you'll find the Lowline Lab, a prototype for New York City's first underground park, which until now has existed only as an idea. The lab, which opened to the public on Saturday, is the culmination of years of work by its creators, Dan Barasch and James Ramsey, who have been tinkering with plans for the space since at least 2008. The idea is to create a green space deep below NYC's streets by projecting the sun's rays down into a disused trolley station, a complicated process that the Lab is now putting on full display. "We're kind of blown away now that it actually exists," says Ramsey. "To our great delight, all of our equipment and technical pieces are performing in excess of our calculations."
When visitors come to the lab, they'll have a chance to learn about the science of the Lowline—which involves harnessing the sun's rays with pieces of optical equipment on the roof, transferring it into the warehouse through a protective tube, and then diffusing it over the site via a canopy that stretches across the ceiling. In addition to its solar-harnessing system, the centerpiece of the lab is its huge living display, which functions as both a science experiment and an art installation. There are thousands of plants in it—from hardy moss to edible herbs to baby pineapples—which are placed in accordance to how much sunlight they need. (Fragile spearmint is closer to the light, low-lying ferns are further away.) And because it is a living, breathing installation, it's meant to morph over time. "It'll look different in a few months than it does right now," says Ramsey.
That adaptability is one of the defining traits of the lab: "We'll see how people come in and use the space, and we're really excited about being flexible, and play[ing] with what works and what doesn't," says Barasch. And while they have yet to see how the Lowline technology will work long-term—this is one of many phases, and the projected opening date for the actual park is 2020—he and Ramsey are excited to see what happens next. "I feel like we've been toiling in obscurity for a long time, and now this is our time to show off all the work," Barasch explains.