Harry Campbell

The video opens with a question: “Where do you build new green space in a crowded city like New York?” After the camera zooms down from a digital image of the Manhattan skyline to the congested street level, an answer appears on the screen: “Why not underground?”

Cue a sales pitch for the Lowline, a proposal by architect James Ramsey to turn the decommissioned Williamsburg Trolley Terminal into New York’s first underground park. Ramsey, 35, the owner of Manhattan-based firm RAAD Studio, produced the video last year with several colleagues for a Kickstarter campaign. He had seen other architects bankroll personal ventures through online crowdfunding sites—a growing phenomenon that The New York Times has called a new patronage model “for a DIY generation.” Still, Ramsey was skeptical that he could raise enough money for his concept, a kind of subterranean version of the High Line. “What we were doing was much larger in scale than the other projects we saw getting funding,” he says—namely, revitalizing 1.5 acres under Delancey Street on the Lower East Side.

Ramsey discovered the space in 2008. Since then, he has spent years tinkering with a remote skylight design capable of delivering light underground through the use of fiber optics powerful enough to support plant photosynthesis. He partnered with Dan Barasch, a community outreach expert, to form the Lowline nonprofit organization in 2011, and they turned to Kickstarter to raise funds for an “Imagining the Lowline” exhibit that would help sell the idea and showcase a skylight prototype.

Founded in 2009, Kickstarter is one of the preeminent online platforms for raising money from individuals. In March, the company crested the half-billion dollar mark in funds pledged, with more than 3.4 million people giving money. Most campaigns on the site ask for less than $10,000 to support a project, but Ramsey and Barasch took a big risk and asked for $100,000. Their Kickstarter campaign went live on Feb. 22, 2012, and they hit their goal.

In eight days.

And people kept giving. By the close of the campaign in April, 300 backers had pledged $155,186. “It was a startling result,” Ramsey says.