Professor Emeritus Spotlight: Kenneth J. Polakowski

Originally published: 
February, 2020

A River Runs Through It

The joggers, picnickers, bike riders, dog walkers, and kayakers who enjoy an afternoon in Ann Arbor’s Gallup Park may consider, on occasion, that they owe a measure of thanks to someone named Gallup. And they would be right. Beginning his position as parks superintendent in 1919, Eli Gallup spent nearly 40 years expanding the city park system.

But park visitors are indebted to another man, as well. The sweeping curve of Geddes Pond, lined with paved pathways and fishing spots, the trails that meander through woodlands and meadows along the Huron River—even the Pond’s small islands, strung with bucolic bridges—were all the vision of Kenneth J. Polakowski, now Professor Emeritus of Landscape Architecture at the University of Michigan’s (U-M) School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS).

Polakowski was invited to create a master plan for the park in 1968, the same year he had joined the SEAS faculty (then the School of Natural Resources). At the time, the land that would become Ann Arbor’s iconic river park had been ravaged by a massive storm.

The sweeping curve of Geddes Pond, lined with paved pathways and fishing spots, the trails that meander through woodlands and meadows along the Huron River—even the Pond’s small islands, strung with bucolic bridges—were all the vision of Kenneth J. Polakowski...

Described as “the heaviest in a generation,” the downpour washed out every dam in the area, leaving a devastated landscape and a gaping basin in its wake. Yet even before the storm damage, there was no real public access to the river or its environs. A few private properties dotted the banks of the Huron, but most of the riverfront was owned by the City of Ann Arbor—having bought the dams and the river rights from Detroit Edison in 1958.

Despite the daunting condition of both land and river, Polakowski rose to the challenge—and the master plan for the 69 acres of Gallup Park developed into the thoughtfully designed community gathering space that would become one of Ann Arbor’s most popular recreation areas. With its three-mile loop of trails traversing the islands and pond, picnic shelters and open fields, Gallup Park provides a welcome balance between city and nature.

Both Polakowski and SEAS enjoy continuing connections with the park on the river.

Polakowski’s friend and colleague, U-M Professor of Landscape Architecture, the late Terry Brown, was highly involved in the second-phase planning and design work, which included the canoe and kayak livery area. And nearly 50 years after the inception of the park, Polakowski’s daughter, Cheryl Zuellig, a landscape architect herself and vice president at SmithGroupJJR—became "principal in charge" of the company's work on a $1.1 million interactive, universally accessible playground in the park. Overseeing the project for the city was Amy Kuras, a former student of Polakowski’s who credits him for her decision to become a landscape architect. In addition to her role with the city, Kuras is an adjunct assistant professor of landscape architecture at SEAS.

In 2017, the Ann Arbor Observer featured the article, “Return to the River,” that tells a more complete story of Polakowski and his involvement with Gallup Park. The professor emeritus still considers the design and development of the park as a highlight of his professional practice.

Making an Impact in Landscape Architecture Education and Beyond

In his 30-year career at SEAS, Polakowski led a pioneering effort to develop the first professional master's degree program in landscape architecture. He helped make the Michigan curriculum model the current and dominant international educational approach in this field. His teaching employed an ecological and behavioral approach to public land use planning and design, and for his excellence in teaching, he received the Outstanding Educators Award from the Council of Education in Landscape Architecture.

Polakowski’s impact extended well beyond the borders of park and university. His work on sand dune protection for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources influenced the establishment of a resource management plan for a local watershed in the Great Masurian Lake District of Poland. His collaborative multidisciplinary research in Australia contributed to the development of management plans for protecting and restoring endangered native landscapes.

Today, Polakowski and his wife, Shirley, a former systems analyst, reside in their Charlevoix, Michigan, home. Having raised five children during their marriage of more than 60 years, the couple stays active and involved in their community.

The Charlevoix County Community Foundation features a piece about “Ken and Shirley Polakowski” on their website, stating that “Ken is engaged in the effort to preserve and improve the beautiful tree-filled avenues throughout Charlevoix,” and that Shirley is active with the Charlevoix Area Garden Club. The article adds: “They are using their knowledge, skills, and experience to enhance this area they love.” 

A native of Wisconsin, Kenneth J. Polakowski received his B.S. degree from Michigan State University in 1956 and his M.L.A. degree from Harvard University in 1957. He was an associate professor at The Pennsylvania State University from 1957 – 1968, and was a member of the U-M faculty from 1968 – 1998. Polakowski is a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Photos from left to right: Polakowski in his early years at U-M; Gallup Park aerial view; Ken and Shirley Polakowski (Charlevoix County Community Foundation); Polakowski (submitted photo)