Landscapes of Resilience: Joplin, MO


In May 2011, an EF5, mile-wide, multi-vortex tornado chewed through a large swath of Joplin, MO. In just 38 minutes, the tornado claimed 161 lives, injured 1150 others; it caused billions of dollars in damages, and left thousands of trees decimated, uprooted or maimed. Parts of the community were utterly devastated.

Among the thousands of people across the country who descended on Joplin to help in the wake of the disaster was Keith Tidball. A faculty member in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, and author of Greening in the Red Zone, Keith has long worked with and studied the link between nature/ecology and people in disaster settings.


A colleague of Keith’s, Erika Svendson, a research social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service in New York, contacted him after hearing of the Nature Sacred Award Program. The two saw an opportunity for linked projects; related studies that could benefit both Joplin, as well as New York City, which had recently experienced the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.

The “Landscapes of Resilience Project”, as they envisioned, would explore the practices of community greening and environmental stewardship in Joplin and New York City. It would also help us better understand how community engagement in greening activities contribute to social resilience of places shaken by disaster, and the importance of such green spaces in city resilience strategies.

Keith, who had already been in contact with head of Joplin Parks and Recreation, Chris Cotten, about planting trees to restore canopy destroyed by the storm, reached out to him once more. Together, they hatched the idea for a healing garden, with the understanding that in times of hardship and disaster, people have an innate desire and need to connect with nature.

With the support of the TKF Foundation, they assembled a diverse team that included city officials, architects, psychologists, musical therapists and urban planners – and most importantly, the community. Together, they planned to create a space for the public to not only experience nature, but also symbols and features intended to help one work through grief.

The team set its sights on a history-rich plot of land that had been home to a century old farmhouse that was blown away by the tornado. They built a garden space that incorporated symbolism-rich architectural features. “Space frames” created an outline of houses intended to represent the homes demolished during the storm. The design weaved together design themes related to Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning, the path a healthy person takes to work through the pain of grieving for a loved one or something lost. And butterflies.

Just after the storm had passed, children had told stories of seeing butterflies fluttering above them in the midst of the roar and destruction. Many believed they protected the children, like angels. These too became potent symbols in the garden.

In May 2014, the Butterfly Garden and Overlook opened to the public, and a cluster of studies were launched.

To support the research, enjoy this short film titled “Butterfly Angels”—which works to tell the story of the community itself. The lives impacted; the individuals stories of recovery, healing and resilience. 

Butterfly Angels from TKF Foundation on Vimeo.

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We are a private nonprofit that supports, informs, and inspires the creation of publicly accessible urban green spaces. We believe that every city resident needs nearby green space to provide opportunities for mindfulness, respite, and renewal. The Foundation has issued its final grants to build five Open Spaces Sacred Places and research the impacts on a variety of users with the hope that the powerful connection between nature, spirit and human wellbeing will be scientifically proven.

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