New York City is building its first underground park

An abandoned trolley terminal on New York’s Lower East Side is being transformed into one of the world’s first underground parks, called the Lowline. The park’s creator, James Ramsey, joins Hari Sreenivasan to talk about the park’s cutting edge technology that will bring sunlight underground to help the park flourish.


An abandoned trolly terminal on New York City's Lower East Side is being transformed into one of the world's first underground parks called the Lowline.

The park's creator, James Ramsey, is here to talk about the cutting-edge technology that will bring sunlight underground to help the park flourish.

So, the Lowline, a lot of people in New York, and maybe even other parts of the country, have heard of the High Line, which is this, you know, beautiful elevated set of tracks, and it's New York's, really, newest park.

But by 2020, what is the Lowline?

Well, so the basic premise of the Lowline is that we can use these advanced solar technologies to capture natural sunlight, transport it through the street where we then redistribute it and use that natural sunlight to grow plants and to create a public space in a really crowded area of the city.

Okay, I mean, the basic question is, how do you get sunlight underground?

Yeah, I knew you were gonna ask that.

Let me sort of back up one step.

You know, in a former life, I was a NASA engineer.

Just a peon, but we did some really interesting stuff.

And so the basic premise is taking these sort of laboratory cell optics, scaling them up to architectural scale, and using that to concentrate natural sunlight, to send it through tubes in a super-concentrated form, and then once it lands where you want to put it, you then spread that light back out and use it to grow things.

So, if I'm standing in the Lowline in 2020 -- or I'm standing there in 2020 -- I'm gonna feel like the rays of the sun, these are the actual rays of the sun, are warming my hand?

Well, I mean, yes and no.

It is literally natural sunlight that we're taking from one place and relocating to another place.

However, we're actually taking out all the infrared so we don't, you know, create a death ray or something like that.

And so it's sunlight, but you don't feel the warmth, necessarily.

It's perceptible visually as sunlight and it has all those sort of beneficial qualities, including plant growth and, you know, making people happier.

But it doesn't heat things or burn things.

So, how do you create -- How do you capture and condense the rays down and what kind of tubes do you use to actually get it underground?

Yeah, well, we're working with this amazing Korean company called Sunportal, right?

And we've been developing these systems.

And, effectively, we take a parabolic mirror, a very large one, and use that to focus the sun's rays down and then re-collimate it with another smaller parabolic mirror.

And so you end up with a column of light, like a ray, that's 30 times brighter than the sun.

And then we can sort of send that through tubes and lenses and mirrors and actually deliver, really, anywhere we want.

And when that light gets underground, what is that sunlight going to be on top of?

Just a space where the people walk around or where you said plants are gonna be growing?

Yeah, I mean, I think the light itself, you know, number one, of course, is perfect for growing stuff.

But number two, people like it.

It's good for, you know, well-being, let's say, and human enjoyment.

And you also have a lab component to this that's already up?

Yeah, absolutely.

So, if you're curious as to how that feels, we actually have an active lab that's open to the public right now, actually.

It's at 140 Essex Street.

And it's open on weekends to the general public, so anyone can go down there and see it.

And, you know, if you're curious, you can also have your kids attend with their school groups during the week.

What are the uses of this besides this particular park?

I mean, where else could people need to funnel sunlight?

Well, I mean, I think it has pretty far-reaching implications.

You put it into anything underground, obviously.

Anything with a really deep floor plate.

Anything like a hospital, a jail, a school, et cetera.

I think it would be actually kind of perfect for a moon base, but, you know, that's a little out there.

James Ramsey.

The project's called Lowline.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.