Public space, access, and the Lowline

On Sunday, I biked up to the Lower East side to check out the Lowline, a pop-up exhibit showcasing a potential underground public park. We were asked to think about what design choices were made to make the experience participatory. It was exciting to be in a dark abandoned building with a hundred or so intrigued visitors and surrounded by screened projections of architectural speculation (like subterranean bike parking, complete with elevators).

But the fact that we were at an Audi-sponsored event with well-heeled patrons and five or six vendors serving such gourmet fare as $5 cups of Blue Bottle coffee and organic fair trade truffles made the experience feel dramatically posh. Jane Jacobs’ definition of public space as an “an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.” So the Lowline, if the MTA approves their proposal, will have to find an appropriate medium between catering to the donor demographic to raise the $50 million they proposed and the locals who will hopefully enjoy the park as a safe public space for contemplation, fresh air (hmm), and a break from traffic.

Because the space is enclosed–it is walled, you enter through doors, it can be controlled and guarded–it feels a bit more like a museum than an “outdoor” park. I think this presents great educational opportunity: controlled natural experience might be a great way to teach urban students about flora and fauna. Groups could have ranger-facilitated slumber parties to learn about camping and nature, the Lowline could host fundraisers and parties at night, and play with integrating art exhibits and games into the park.

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