The world's most futuristic park is set to come to New York City.

The Lowline is a project to build a green landscape in an abandoned subway under Manhattan. The plan would create a public space with natural vegetation--accomplished via sunlight piped in through high-tech tubes. As with any urban project, red tape has slowed development in recent years. But now, eight years after the idea was conceived, the city granted the land to the Lowline on Wednesday afternoon. The transfer is conditional on the Lowline meeting a series of goals over the next 12 months. 

The project is the brainchild of James Ramsey, a Yale-educated architect, designer, and former satellite engineer for NASA. He came up with the idea in 2008, when he first learned of an abandoned subway terminal under Manhattan's Lower East Side. Ramsey recruited his friend Dan Barasch to be the community outreach and business brains, and together the two co-founded the Lowline, a non-profit organization with the goal of making the vision a reality.

"What would the subways look like 200 years after humans are gone?" Ramsey asked Inc. during a tour of the Lowline Lab, a proof of concept in a Manhattan warehouse, last month. "We used that idea as our blueprint."

Achieving that futuristic vision requires futuristic technology. Ramsey, whose previous inventions range from furniture to a modern chicken coop with a solar-powered fan, created a product called the remote skylight. It collects sunlight above ground, concentrates it, and sends it below through a series of tubes at the wavelength required for photosynthesis. A concave mirror outside uses a GPS tracking system to follow the sun and focus its light into 30 times its normal intensity. "We're pushing the envelope on what physics can do," Ramsey says.

The technology filters out the harmful UV rays as well as heat. Standing under the lights on a hot June day meant that a perspiration-prone reporter didn't even break a sweat.

Lowline Lab opened in October, a publicly viewable experiment meant to demonstrate feasibility and generate buzz for what the co-founders call "the world's first underground park." More than 70,000 people have passed through to see the concept at work.

In the middle of an otherwise dimly lit warehouse, a natural looking mound of plants sits bathed in glowing sunlight. Since the soil and plants were transplanted directly from nature, a few bugs crawl around on the layer of topsoil. Ramsey says they even found a few frogs.

Ramsey envisions having 3,500 different varieties of plants in the actual Lowline. In the lab, strawberries have begun to grow alongside chives, onions, tomatoes, and at least 12 different kinds of moss, which he mentions a few times. "This kind of project," Ramsey says, "makes you get excited about things like moss."

Ramsey wants to design the completed Lower East Side project to look from the outside like the sidewalk was peeled up, revealing the contents of the underground. Inside will be pathways that wind between pools of water and clumps of plants. Ramsey points to I Am Legend, the 2007 movie that portrayed an overgrown, Will Smith-occupied Manhattan, as a source of inspiration.

The project was originally dubbed Delancey Underground, a tribute to the street under which it would sit. Fairly quickly, it came to be known as the Lowline, a tribute to its counterpoint on Manhattan's West Side. The High Line, which uses an old elevated freight rail line as its infrastructure and features plant life, seating areas, and sprawling views of the skyline and the Hudson River, has quickly become a favorite tourist attraction since opening in 2009. In a city with limited street level space for greenery, it now draws 5 million visitors annually.

The land that the Lowline will inhabit was last used in 1948. As a former transportation hub, it was owned by the city's Metropolitan Transit Authority--until today. The transfer, which was the result of a proposal submitted to the city in February and involved no money changing hands, means the space now belongs to the Lowline.

"The Lowline represents an incredible fusion of technology and public space," says Alicia Glen, the city's deputy mayor for housing and economic development, in a statement to Inc. "We can't wait to see this experiment unfold." It's conditional on the project and the city agreeing on a design, and on the Lowline raising a predetermined amount of funds over the next 12 months. Barasch says he doesn't know the exact amount yet but expects it to be "millions of dollars."

Even if the Lowline should get the final go-ahead, its co-founders have their work cut out. They estimate the project will cost $70 million to complete. As of now, the MTA won't contribute any money. So far, the Lowline--developing the technology, creating the lab--has been funded personally and through private donations, including a Kickstarter campaign that netted $155,000 back in 2012.

But the transfer from the city opens doors. "We've had a whole range of potential private donors who said they were interested in contributing but wondered how viable it was, and if city would get behind it," Barasch says. "Now we can go back to those donors, and we can go to public sources as well." Barasch wouldn't name the private funders--actual or potential--but says he and Ramsey will seek public funding on the city, state, and federal levels. The goal is to begin construction in 2019 and complete the Lowline by 2021. If that happens, the co-founders will show the world what the future of public spaces could look like.

"The hope is that we meet all our expectations, and that this becomes a reality," Barasch says. "We're showing everyone how serious we are about this project."

Published on: Jul 13, 2016