Greening in the Red Zone: Thoughts on Disaster, Resilience and Community Greening in the Peopled Landscape

Bookmark and Share

Keith Tidball

About the Writer:
Keith Tidball

Keith Tidball is a Senior Extension Associate in the Department of Natural Resources where he serves as Associate Director of the Civic Ecology Lab ( and Program Leader for both the Nature & Human Security Program and the Communities and Urban Forests Extension Program. Tidball’s research is focused on the interactions between humans and nature in the context of disasters and war.

At the international conference Resilience 2008, which gathered more than 600 leading scientists, business leaders and politicians in Stockholm, Sweden, I was struck by the Changing Matters art exhibit that explored resilience themes. One of the artists, Jon Brunberg, shared a piece called 19 Years, a one-minute Flash animation that depicts the more than 91 million people around the world who took part in mass demonstrations between 1989 and 2007, crying out for change. Locational dots appear on a screen showing a world map, gradually at first, but increasing in intensity, accompanied by the jolting sounds of fire-crackers popping, each corresponding with the appearance of a new dot, a new mass demonstration. The dots and sounds crescendo to an alarming level as time passes, communicating the urgency and power of humanity’s will and alluding to their capacity to change things, to shake their realities into new ones. Experiencing this art is a sublime experience, paradoxical in its inspiring yet disturbing spectacle. One is moved, somewhat overwhelmed, alarmed and yet optimistic.

An example of greening in a red zone, this is an image of a London WWII bomb crater in the courtyard of Westminster Cathedral that has been transformed into a thriving Victory garden. Photo used by permission of Getty Images

Similarly, in urban post-disaster and post-conflict situations, I have seen equally overwhelming, alarming, and yet optimistic human responses, demonstrating the extraordinary resilience of our species. Some of the most intriguing and inspirational responses to disaster and conflict are found in the mysterious realms of altruism. One needs only to recall the week of September 11th, 2001, in New York City and Washington D.C. to conjure images of selfless heroes and an understanding of this type of response.

Another form of response is somewhat more muted, but in the end, perhaps equally, or even more profound. I am referring to the response by both individual and groups of humans to return to “nature” when calamity strikes, to actively seek intimacy with other living things, to retreat (or advance!) to life-affirming interactions in verdant, alive contexts. Often these responses start with individuals and grow into movements larger social movements and even government sponsored programs. I am highlighting how brave people combine their own fate with that of the animal, tree, flower, forest or garden that lives or dies. This type of response, the many motives and explanations for how it comes about, and the implications of its presence and efficacy in terms of resilience and sustainability is an area of inquiry that I call “greening in the red zone” and is the name and subject of a forthcoming book.

At the time of this writing, the conclusion of the first decade of the 21st century is “in the rearview mirror,” and as we advance into the second decade the world is still reeling from what seems to many to be increasingly frequent perturbances. Recent multiple earthquakes and disasters (Japan, Haiti, Chile, China, and others) have punctuated an already chaotic ten-year period that has seen buildings felled by terrorists from New York City to Nairobi, wars in the Middle East, catastrophic flooding in New Orleans, mudslides, typhoons, complex disasters such as in Fukushima Japan, and the list goes on. But as troubling as these events are, they are not in themselves particularly new phenomena. Even in my own lifetime, I have noticed the predictable likelihood that disasters will happen.

The coastal city of Souma, Fukushima was inundated by devastating tsunami flood waters. It is located about 27 miles north of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. Photo: Cornell Institute for Public Affairs.

My early upbringing was as the child of a minister in the prairie country of Minnesota, in the north central USA. We were not strangers to natural disasters; every summer communities near us, and sometimes our own community, experienced the devastating power of tornadoes. I grew up with ‘70’s era TV images of families weeping while standing where their trailer used to be, or where their barn used to be, or even standing where they last saw members of their family. These were terrifying images, but they were also fascinating. I was at an early age captivated by the human survival instinct in the wake of calamity, and motivated to gain an experiential understanding of these human traits.

Being a minister’s child, I was exposed to different cultures around the world through missionaries. When our family moved to Detroit, these impression-making interactions increased. In the summer of 1988, between my junior and senior year of high school, I experienced my first international disaster. I travelled to Haiti to work with Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), a faith-based, nonprofit organization founded by military pilots to use aircraft to help missionaries respond to disasters. MAF currently operates 136 light aircraft to support their outreach and humanitarian relief and development activities in 38 nations, providing aviation support in a variety of settings. We were assisting a community near the city of Cap-Haïtien, which had experienced damage to hillside buildings, including a school, during Hurricane Emily in 1987. It was here that I began to understand the links between people, the rest of nature, and the outcomes of surprise events like so-called natural disasters or other catastrophes.

According to Jane Deren of Education for Justice, during the 1980’s, Haiti still had 25% of its forests, which allowed the tropical island nation to endure rain events like 1987’s Category 3 Hurricane Emily, with minimal loss of life. But, she says, as of 2004, only 1.4% of Haiti’s forests remained. The effects of this slow erosion of a source of Haitian social-ecological system resilience are now being felt. Storms Jeanne and Gordon were not even officially hurricanes when they descended upon Haiti, but the almost complete lack of tree cover has been pointed to as a major contributing factor to the devastating floods that killed thousands.  And, according to some, it doesn’t even take a tropical storm to seriously disrupt the Haitian system — in May of 2004, three days of heavy rains from a tropical disturbance dumped more than 18 inches of rain in the mountains, triggering floods that killed over 2600 people. Tragically, the tens of thousands of Haitians who died as a result of the 2010 earthquake are further testimony to the loss of resilience within the Haitian social-ecological system. (For an exhaustive body of work on Haiti and forestry, see anthropologist Gerald F. Murray’s research portfolio.)

My own experience in disaster relief in Haiti over 20 years ago was extraordinary in many ways, but one experience stands out in particular. There was a small school perched precariously on a slope. The school had been closed since the storm of a year earlier, as it was deemed unsafe. Portions of the exterior showed signs of slumping down the hill. Every day, women and older men were planting small trees on the uphill side of the building. I asked someone one day what they were doing, and the person replied, in a rather condescending way, that they were wasting their time trying to save the school. About a week later, I heard a man yelling and whistling shrilly. I looked in the direction of the noise and saw the tree planters scurrying away from the school. Moments later, the building totally collapsed and slid a little ways down the hill. The entire community seemed to assemble at the site within minutes, and there could be heard great cries and wailing, yet thankfully, no one was injured. After about an hour of this, the women who were planting trees, and two or three of the old men trudged up the slope and resumed their planting. Slowly, others climbed to assist, until there were maybe 30 people on the side of the hill above the rubble. I was greatly moved.

Later, I mustered the courage to ask our host to help me pose some questions to the tree planters. I asked them why they continued to plant trees when the school was destroyed. The interpreter asked my question in Creole, and there were many answers, and much hand waving. I thought I had offended the people. Then, the interpreter turned to me with tears in his eyes. He said:

“We didn’t plant the trees to save the school. We planted the trees to save the children in the school. We are still planting the trees because we are still worried about our children. We are planting the trees because there is nothing else we can do. See? We are not crying here, we are planting trees.”

More recently, on 29 August 2005, New Orleans endured weeks of inundation and devastation, and months of disorganized recovery efforts as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Yet despite media reports portraying New Orleans as paralyzed and helpless, or even worse, descending into chaos, ordinary citizens were observed planting and caring for trees in neighborhoods across the city. Within four years after the disaster, three local NGOs, Parkway Partners, Hike for KaTREEna, and Replanting New Orleans, worked with community volunteers and government agencies to plant over 6000 trees in hard hit areas. Interviews I conducted with volunteers in the devastated 9th Ward and other New Orleans neighborhoods, and with leaders of local NGOs, revealed how trees and replanting trees were critical in bolstering people’s resolve to rebuild their lives, and how memories of the live oaks and other trees that had been symbolic of New Orleans as a place to live became a symbol of hope for re-growth of the city and of their lives (see Tidball, K. G. 2012, Greening in the Red Zone: Valuing Community-Based Ecological Restoration in Human Vulnerability Contexts. Department of Natural Resources. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University: 355; and Tidball, K. G. 2012, Trees and Rebirth: Symbol, Ritual, and Resilience in Post-Katrina New Orleans. In Greening in the Red Zone: Disaster, Resilience, and Community Greening. K. G. Tidball and M. Krasny. New York, Springer-Verlag.)

Post-Hurricane Katrina tree planting in Tremé, New Orleans. Photo: Keith G. Tidball

It is my hope that greening efforts that I have witnessed first-hand, like NYC’s Million Trees program, New Orleans’s post-Katrina greening efforts, the Greening of Detroit, and the ReLeaf Joplin movement can become inspirational to policy makers and planners in post-conflict and post-disaster contexts, especially in large population centers, and also affirming and inspiring to community greeners everywhere. I am optimistic that humanity can recall its collective connections to the rest of the biosphere, especially in times of crisis, and that such recollection will help us remember our way out of current pathologies and learn our way in to a sustainable urban future on ever-changing planet earth.

To learn more about Greening in the Red Zone, see: and

Keith Tidball
Ithaca, NY  USA

8 thoughts on “Greening in the Red Zone: Thoughts on Disaster, Resilience and Community Greening in the Peopled Landscape

  1. Pingback: En rapport och ett omnämnande | Makt som metafysik och mätbar enhet

  2. Keith,
    Thank you for a very interesting post. My reply concerns the unique, and in my opinion, often unrecognized role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in post-Katrina New Orleans. Dillard University’s Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and Clark Atlanta University’s Environmental Justice Research Center organized “A Safe Way Back Home” program in New Orleans to address the environmental concerns of New Orleans residents who wished to return to their homes (Bullard 2008, Wright 2011). This program addressed many of the issues you raised in your post and also addressed an environmental justice component that was not explicit in your work. Bullard and Wright and their institutions framed Katrina in a different way than many involved with urban ecology and urban greening. The saw the impacts of Katrina not just as an environmental disaster or as part of a larger global pattern. Instead they responded to a set of differential and predictable impacts on a subset of New Orleans residents. They sought to address the impacts of decades of public policy decisions that resulted in differential environmental impacts on Black residents of New Orleans. “A Safe Way Back Home” provided assistance and training for New Orleans residents in ways that went beyond greening and sought to address some of broader issues of returning to a community that was not welcoming them. I appreciated your personal reflections in your post and noted that Bullard and Wrights work has strong connections to the environmental justice movement which had its origins in the church.
    Charlie Nilon
    Columbia, MO

    Bullard, R.D. 2008. Differential vulnerabilities: Environmental and economic inequality and government response to unnatural disasters. Social Research 75:753-784.

    Wright, B. 2011. Race, place, and the environment in the aftermath of Katrina. Anthropology of Work Review 32:4-8.

    Charlie Nilon
    Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences
    University of Missouri
    302 Anheuser-Busch Natural Resources Building
    Columbia, MO 65211-7240
    email:, phone: (573) 882-3738, Skype: charlienilon

  3. Thanks for the comment, Alan. You point out that “it seems that in many situations, people do not fully realize the importance of their environment until said disturbance occurs and, only then, do they make a concerted effort to reclaim what was once there…” and you ask “…is this something that you deem valid?” In answer, yes, I think people, all people, have a latent biophilia within them, but perhaps have a kind of amnesia about their ecological identity…a sudden perturbation may awaken long dormant “memories” of their ecological identity and catalyze a process of remembering via this “urgent biophilia” mechanism, among others (like restorative topophilia, memorialization mechanisms, and so forth — see )

    You also asked “…do you believe that we are drastically losing our connections to the natural environment and that disturbances are “mother natures” way of reconnecting us with it?” I think you are alluding to some important things there, though I might rephrase them a bit. I do believe that humans are forgetting (which is not exactly the same as losing) their interdependence upon the biosphere, and that disturbances are ways in which system memory of that interdependence can resurface and become reactivated in important ways.

    You follow that question with asking “…do you believe there is hope in inspiring these entities prior to the natural disasters or do they, disasters, provide the ground for these new policies to be more easily implemented?” It is my hope that policy-makers and planners will adopt more anticipatory and resilience oriented adaptive management strategies, rather than antiquated and maladaptive, path-dependent ‘stability/equilibrium’ paradigms. I hope that not only individuals, but communities, neighborhoods, cities, and even nation states begin a process of remembering via these mechanisms I refer to such as urgent biophilia, and begin to manage for resilience rather than steady states, which is to manage for the reality of change, rather than the myth of stability. I do believe that perturbations are key to remembering (see slide 11 here:

    Thanks very much for the interesting questions!

  4. Hi Keith,
    I appreciate your post, as it brings up valid points as to why the natural biophilic systems, in and around our communities, are so important to the future. I find your position on the relationship between people and their ecological environment, post-disturbance, to be quite intriguing.
    It seems that in many situations, people do not fully realize the importance of their environment until said disturbance occurs and, only then, do they make a concerted effort to reclaim what was once there. Is this something that you deem valid?
    At the rate of urbanization within the world, specifically we may speak in terms of the United States if this allows a more precise answer; do you believe that we are drastically losing our connections to the natural environment and that disturbances are “mother natures” way of reconnecting us with it?
    In your last paragraph, you mention inspiring the planners and policy makers in post-disaster contexts. Do you believe there is hope in inspiring these entities prior to the natural disasters or do they, disasters, provide the ground for these new policies to be more easily implemented?
    In my own opinion, it seems that most cities seem to take on the old adage that a system in equilibrium will remain so, until it is disturbed by an outside force, with most cities believing that they are in that state of equilibrium. However, I argue, most cities are not in a state of ecological equilibrium, however vastly unrecognized this may be, and I see your standing on the matter, as to how cities come to realize just how unrecognized these imbalances are in the ecology of the city, to be through the force of some disaster. Would you concur?
    I know I have been a bit long-winded; however, I appreciate all responses that you may have.
    Alan Axford
    Auburn University

  5. Greetings Keith. A fascinating post! I look forward to seeing the book. Coincidentally I am currently working on a project on “Greening the Red Zone”. In this case, Christchurch city in NZ. We are investigating the vegetation changes in the residential red zone of ChCh after abandonment of over 7000 properties following the major earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. Let’s keep in touch! Cheers Glenn

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>