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Tobias Armborst of Interboro Partners: Planning Ahead For the Next Big One

Assistant professor Tobias Armborst at the East Rockaway Channel of the Western Bay, an inlet waterway just west of Jones Beach on the Atlantic Ocean

If you’re looking for ways to control large surges of water, it’s a good idea to consult with experts in the field from the Netherlands, where about half the country is below sea level. That’s what Vassar assistant professor of art and urban studies Tobias Armborst did when his urban planning firm was preparing a proposal to minimize damage on Long Island from future storms in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

The plan Armborst’s firm, Interboro Partners, submitted to New York state was awarded $125 million in federal grants to repair damage from the 2012 hurricane and to protect Long Island communities from future storms of such magnitude.

The remediation plan was one of four selected from among more than 140 proposals submitted for the New York-New Jersey region.

Armborst, a member of the Vassar faculty since 2008, says he and his partners took a two-pronged approach as they developed their proposal: talk to as many community leaders and municipal government officials on Long Island as possible, and seek Dutch expertise in water planning. ”The government of the Netherlands has laws about how water must be controlled and contained, “ he says. “For obvious reasons, the Dutch are well grounded in water engineering. They’re the best in the world at what they do.”

Five Dutch firms eventually joined Interboro’s team as consultants, and one of them built a hydrological model of Long Island’s south shore. “This allowed us to digitally re-create surge levels during Superstorm Sandy or other nor’easters,” Armborst says. The firm’s plan calls for the construction of marshes, dikes, swales and sluices on parts of the Long Island coast as well as along rivers and streams further inland. Preliminary work has already started, and the project is to be finished by 2017.

An Interboro Partners rendering of a water park along the Mill River that will serve to store and filter water in the river floodplain

A native of Germany, Armborst graduated from a German architectural school and received a master’s degree in urban design from Harvard in 2002. He formed Interboro Partners with two of his Harvard classmates. He says his real-world experience in the field enhances his teaching – and vice versa. “I teach a course in urban design, and I’m also doing it, so what we discuss in class isn’t theoretical,” Armborst says. “It’s an applied science, and we’re talking about how to apply it. And to prepare for class, I read a lot about urban planning theory, and that helps me in the work I do for my firm.”

Armborst says he often emphasizes to his students the importance of creating a consensus among political and community leaders before launching a project. “I cannot count the number of meetings we held with business owners, political  leaders and others on Long Island while we were developing our proposal,” he says. “It was time-consuming, but obviously it paid off.”

Knowing the community where he’s working has paid off for Armborst in the past. Three years ago, his firm was asked to submit a proposal to the Museum of Modern Art for a portable space for performances at the museum’s Queens location. Interboro Partners submitted a plan that used portable seating and decorations that could be used by local community centers and other community groups when it was not being used by the museum. “We had done some other work in Queens and were familiar with the area,” Armborst explained. The proposal earned Interboro Partners the 2011 MOMA Young Architects’ Prize.

Rendering of a bio-swale—a simple technology to delay, store, and purify storm water--in a neighborhood adjacent to the Mill River

Armborst and his partners, Daniel D'Oca and Georgeen Theodore, have also written their first book, which is scheduled to be published next spring. In The Arsenal of Exclusion and Inclusion, the authors discuss the “weapons” architects, city planners and other municipal officials and business owners use to make a city more accessible – or less accessible. The list includes such simple devices as “No Loitering” signs and bouncers at nightclubs and more complex things such as rent control, eminent domain laws and gated communities.

Armborst says that while he doesn’t think he’s gifted at multi-tasking, he enjoys combining his teaching profession with his other work. “I don’t consider myself particularly well organized,” he says, “but part of an architect’s makeup is having multiple things to do at once. We’re trained to know a little about a lot of things because designing something has many components.”

He says he thinks this aspect of architecture and urban design helps attract students to his class. “About half – maybe less – of my students actually aspire to a career in architecture or urban planning,” Armborst says. “But helping students explore the benefits of collaboration is part of a liberal arts college’s job. It’s part of a broad based education to show how to do these things.”

--Larry Hertz

Posted by Office of Communications Tuesday, September 2, 2014