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How The Lowline's Underground Park Could Inspire Brighter Indoor Living

The technology that the park is using to bring light beneath New York's sidewalks could change how we design buildings—and make everyone less depressed.

If all goes extremely well for Dan Barasch, he and his team will have built the world's first naturally-lit underground park by 2021.

But the ambitious proposal to build the Lowline—and create a bucolic garden of plants in what is now a dark and dusty abandoned trolley station on New York City's Lower East Side—could also have implications beyond this single project. Its technology, which collects daylight through a series of mirrors and concentrates it into a laser that can be beamed underground, could also change how architects and designers think about the potential for indoor space.

At the Lowline Lab, a public, smaller-scale demonstration of the technology that has been operating for a year, about 3,000 plants and 100 species of plants are currently thriving. Tests have shown that the technology, as it's implemented in the space, is successful at bringing daylight into a windowless, large room. Even strawberries and mint have been grown successfully.

"We have 70% of the strength of natural sunlight being able to be distributed into the space here. By contrast, most of the lighting that you're familiar with in offices or homes doesn't even approach 10% or 20% of the strength of natural sunlight, so its magnitude is a lot higher than anything that's really been done before," says Barasch, the Lowline's co-founder and executive director, speaking to an audience at the Fast Company Innovation Festival.

The success of the technology means it could be applicable in other kinds of buildings where there's a lack of natural light, such as schools, offices, hospitals—or even prisons. Natural light has been proven to help alleviate depression and boost mood and productivity.

"Right now, it's not a cheap thing to do. It's a lot cheaper to string up some LEDs and sort of call it a day," says Barasch. "I think part of this is proving that this works, and proving that it's successful. A lot of different kinds of entities in the real estate space have watched this project with keen interest and my hope is that we may be able to influence some new construction."

Other cities, too, are looking to the Lowline project with the idea of better utilizing their own underground spaces, for parks or perhaps as other kinds of spaces. The team, Barasch says, has been asked to visit Moscow, to advise city planners there, and heard from people like the mayor of Paris and urban food program experts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. New York City alone, he says, has a couple of dozen acres of vacant underground space below its sidewalks.

"There's sort of this larger interest of 'could this technology be bigger and more scalable than we're even thinking about here?' And I think that's part of the excitement," he says.

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