As a longtime preservation activist, I have special empathy for those who advocate for landscape preservation. It’s hard enough to keep historic buildings going, but landscapes are a special challenge. Sure, buildings suffer from the elements and human neglect just as landscapes do, but buildings are tougher, especially those put up hundreds of years ago by craftspeople who used materials and techniques that contemporary developers could never afford and wouldn’t be interested in anyway.

This isn’t true with fragile landscapes that depend much more on regular human attention and can be nearly obliterated by a couple years worth (or less) of neglect. By comparison, there are historic theaters throughout New York state that have withstood decades of ill treatment, only to bounce back with the help of a well-funded rehab.

Thomas Polk Park, Charlotte, NC, 2017. Photo by Larry Syverson (also for first image)

This is why I find the work of the Cultural Landscape Foundation so compelling. 

Established in 1988, the CLF, among other work, maintains a Landslide program, which “draws immediate and lasting attention to threatened landscapes and landscape features.” 

I recently wrote about Crowninshield, a long-neglected property in Wilmington, Delaware, which is on the CLF’s radar, though maybe too far gone for the Landslide list.. 

But here’s a public park that did just make the list as “at risk” this month: Thomas Polk Park, which is located in Charlotte, NC. 

The park is designed by Angela Danadjieva and opened in 1991.With her husband, Thomas Koenig, Danadjieva designed over 100 plaza and urban space projects in different parts of the country. 

Polk is a tiny park (one-third-acre) but it has a 30-foot-high waterfall and reflecting pool surrounded by plantings. That might not mean much to those who don’t live in cities, but when you do, you cherish every little pocket park, patch of greenery, or fountain that offers a brief respite from the buildings and traffic. I love city life, but I think parks are a big part of it. Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Buffalo’s park system, did too.

Thomas Polk Park, Charlotte, NC, 2017. Photo by Larry Syverson

One of the main thing that irks me about the city of Charlotte’s plan to demolish this park is that the councilmembers offer the same stupid reasons their brethren in other cities everywhere offer to justify the demolition of historic buildings: “It’s neglected, it’s poorly maintained, it’s starting to crumble.”

Well, whose fault is that? What are property regulations for if not to be enforced? And it’s the municipality’s job to enforce them to make sure that all properties – parks and buildings – are kept in good shape.

In this case, the city itself owns the park, so we don’t have far to go to pinpoint who neglected it.

Adding insult to injury, money that was raised in 2019 to renovate the park will now be used for its demolition.

From the images I’ve seen, I can’t imagine any replacement achieving the same level of drama and style – in any case, demolition is a flagrant act of unsustainability as well as slap in the face to what work still endures by America’s midcentury women landscape architects. 

The park should be restored.

Photos courtesy of the Cultural Landscape Foundation.