Vincent Ricardel

Georgeen Theodore, AIA, is a principal at Interboro Partners in New York City, along with Tobias Armborst and Daniel D’Oca. Interboro led one of six teams to receive funding through Rebuild by Design, a competition to bolster areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. The Interboro team’s project, Living with the Bay, imagines solutions for the southern shore of Long Island that can be replicated in other coastal areas. “Catalytic design that jump-starts change is a complicated process,” Theodore says, “but it makes for a more robust solution.”

Sometimes it’s hard not to get tired of the overuse of the word “resilience.” But while it has become a bit of a cliché, it does reflect a positive change in our attitudes towards flood protection, which is no longer seen as a purely technical problem but as a more complex set of ecological, economic, and social questions. Why are some places better able to bounce back after catastrophic events? It’s difficult to find answers to questions like this, but they are crucial in planning for future sea-level rise and make multidisciplinary collaboration involving architects, planners, scientists, and the humanities more important than ever.

For Living with the Bay, we assembled a half-Dutch, half-American multidisciplinary team of designers, engineers, financing strategists, and educators. Our approach combined large-scale systems analysis and close on-the-ground engagement with local conditions.

One component of Living with the Bay that addresses the north–south Mill River tributary in Nassau County—which we call “slow streams”—is about managing stormwater. The communities and ecosystems of the bays and rivers are extremely vulnerable, and this vulnerability is tied to the way stormwater is managed. Stormwater is piped from the streets directly to the rivers, so when the rivers rise during a storm, the pipes get backed up and then flood the streets and homes around the storm drains. Also, whatever pollution and garbage that the stormwater carries ends up in the bays. So stormwater mismanagement contributes to both flooding and major environmental degradation.

Our proposal centers on flood mitigation, sure, but it’s also about improving the ecology of the river and the accessibility of public space along the river’s banks. The design will protect during the emergency, but also it will enhance the everyday quality of life.

Living with the Bay is more than a design proposal—part of the design challenge has been to organize an unfolding process of interdisciplinary collaboration. We had to identify each other’s expertise and learn how to combine talents to tackle this complex challenge. —As told to William Richards