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Millennials and Beyond

The Backyard Playground at Village of Esencia

by Darryl Carter, LASN

Children play on one of Berliner Seilfabrik Play Equipment's structures at The Backyard Playground in the NorthWalk neighborhood of Rancho Mission Viejo, Calif. The play structure measures 34' x 4' x 32' x 8' x 20' x 4'. The architectural firm, Land Concern, completed the 5.5-acre project in fall of 2018. The park was built in one phase and took 12 months to construct.
This a view of the park's Tot Lot. The recreational space has nearly a dozen play structures. Land Concern was the lead landscape architect and was responsible for design, construction documents, coordination of agency submittals and site observation during construction.
A boy playing on the Gravity Rail; one of the creative ways children have come up with to ride on the structure. Parents, teens and adults also enjoy the ride. The play structure is 15' x 85' x 12' and has a deck height of 4'.
The Gravity Rail as viewed from the south. Bench seating is provided for spectators. The rubber surfacing of the play structure provides a cushioned surface below and around the structure. Future homes are being framed up to the right. One of goals in designing the project was to provide recreational open space for the surrounding, higher density neighborhoods.
This is an aerial view from the south of the park area, with the Hilltop neighborhoods of Esencia in the background and Saddleback Mountain in the distance. The slope in the background has rubber surfacing on it. To the right, behind the tree, is the slope that is covered with synthetic turf.

When Rancho Mission Viejo was looking to build homes for a younger generation, the development company consulted its landscape architect, Land Concern, to draw up a playground and recreation design that would meet the needs of the millennial population and bring a new generation of homeowners to the developing area.

A Millennial Focus
The requirements were that two members from each firm must make up the team, and their ages must fall into the millennial category, 25 - 35. "The challenge was trying to come up with a design that would meet the needs of the millennial population. That was definitely the main focus of the project," said Mike Sweeney, lead architect for the project and principal of Land Concern. "It made sense with the housing product that they were getting ready to develop," he added. "They were trying to get the younger population to buy homes. Primarily, those living in apartments in Orange County - to try to make it affordable for them. So, it really made sense."
The Team's Vision
During the initial design stage, Rancho Mission Viejo contacted Land Concern and three other firms: SWA, Urban Arena, and Brightview to begin work on the project. "It's not unusual for them to bring in other firms to collaborate with us on design. They wanted to reach out to gather as many ideas as possible. Ultimately, we knew going in that we would be responsible for the final design and the construction documents, and so that's why I had a role on the panel itself. And then, the remainder of the team worked on the project," Sweeney continued.

Land Concern's grand vision in creating the park was to provide residents with a vibrant outdoor alternative that makes room for everything.

Park Features
Instead of designing a traditionally fenced-in recreation center, the firm thought outside the box and incorporated a lush green space that sprinkles an eclectic mix of amenities and features throughout.
The Backyard Playground is embossed in the ground at both ends of the park. Natural stone outcroppings line the park's pathway, leading residents down a winding trail of natural fun in every direction. The space is knitted together by multiple gathering spaces, barbecues, fire pits, seating pods, a free Little Library Book exchange, picnic tables, and play areas.

Integrated topography provides for hill slides, turf slides, hill climbing structures and a contemporary rope climber. Multi-story tree houses connected by high-flying catwalks and cascading nets are viewed through mature, relocated sycamore trees and a colorful, water-wise landscape.

A short walk through the park brings you to the zipline featuring 84' of gravity-assisted speed. Shaded retreats and nearby social gatherings include hanging nest chairs, benches, firepits, and soft seating under modern ranch-inspired pavilions.

It Takes a Village
Sweeney's role as the lead landscape architect is to review all landscape plans that come in for compliance, including the designs. "I've been very fortunate to meet all my peers through that process, made friends, and know people very well, so it's like a dream project," he explained.

The architect attributes the park's popularity to a team of landscape professionals. "Imagine hundreds of people standing behind me - because that's what it took to get this project built," he stated. "This was a team project from day one. It was very unique for our industry to have four firms work well together."

One of the interesting things about the project was that the target was for affordability for the millennials, according to Sweeney. "The project brought in a mix of people of different ages because of the affordability. You ended up with 55 and older. You ended up with people from the Inland Empire," he commented.

"The Backyard really became a space for more than just the millennials. It's been successful in that respect," Sweeney said. "It's a great place because you've got the millennials. You've got a lot of children in the neighborhood that come, but I see a ton of grandparents there that bring their kids. It's a real mix. That's been one of the successful parts of the park."

Team List
Lead Landscape Architect: Land Concern
Principal: Mike Sweeney
Senior Associate & Lead Designer: Jill Sweeney
Project Managers: Lindsey Givens and Akin Smith
Landscape Architects: Brightview and Urban Arena
Architectural Firm: SWA Architects
Rancho Mission Viejo Development Company:
Director of Construction - Bill Sadler
Senior Project Manager - Jennifer Taylor

As seen in LASN magazine, September 2019.

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February 27, 2020, 10:27 am PDT

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