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Playtopia at Tumbleweed Park

Jeffrey Velasquez, RLA, ASLA, J2 Engineering & Environmental Design, Phoenix

J2 Engineering & Environmental Design was selected to provide design services for a $6 million, 26-acre park improvement project ("Phase 5") in Chandler, Ariz. that included a design for a three-acre destination playground called "Playtopia." This view to the northwest shows Playtopia on opening day, May 12, 2007.
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The landscape architects of J2 Engineering & Environmental Design, LLC of Phoenix, Ariz. worked with the city of Chandler to develop a destination playground and creative play environment for children of all ages. The playground design incorporated themes to pay tribute to the Chandler region's rich agricultural history, while giving kids a place where they can still be kids.

The rendering shows "Playtopia" and the Phase 5 Improvements at Tumbleweed Park. The project added a restroom building, a variety of ramadas and pavilions, a soft-surface multi-use trail, walking paths, a sand volleyball court, horseshoe pits, multi-use fields, a parking lot and the destination playground.

Tumbleweed Park
Chandler's Tumbleweed is a 205-acre regional park and home to the annual "Ostrich Festival," a three-day state fair-type spring festival that attracts approximately 70,000 people every year. J2 Engineering & Environmental Design was selected to provide design services for a $6 million, 26-acre park improvement project ("Phase 5") that included a design for the three-acre destination playground "Playtopia." The playground had to accommodate large festival-sized crowds, yet be comfortable enough in scale not to overwhelm the everyday visitor.

Chandler is a growing suburban Phoenix community about 17 miles southeast of downtown Phoenix. Chandler used to be about agriculture, however, Arizona, like many Sun Belt states, has experienced a loss of much of its farmlands and open space to growth and development. From the mid-1990s to the middle part of this decade, the Phoenix metro area had grown at the alarming rate of about an acre per hour. City leaders wanted to maintain some of Chandler's agricultural character and heritage at Tumbleweed Park, and incorporate a destination playground. In addition, the city dedicated about 10 acres of the park to permanent farming and education as part of a separate project, Tumbleweed Ranch. The city parks department then turned its focus to Playtopia and the Phase 5 improvements.

Playtopia offers tot, tire and traditional swings to meet the needs of various ages. The line is always long to get on the tire swing at "Farm Land."

Early Visions and Play Philosophy
When city staff and J2 began site analysis and envisioning Playtopia, discussions revolved around the idea of a "true sense of place" for this destination playground. The large regional park already had abundant open grass fields for festival use, but other than the tennis center at one end of the site, there was very little to draw the public into the park. The designers needed to develop a central destination "anchor" for Tumbleweed Park to become a major regional draw for families and large-group gatherings. The design team wanted to achieve a hub of activity in the heart of the park as a catalyst for family excitement, fun and energy.

"The city wanted to build a play area unlike any other, one with a 'wow factor' of experience and discovery for children and adults," said Mickey Ohland, the city's park development and operations manager. Early discussions also focused on a play philosophy that children's activities in our society are often over structured, that kids are growing up with little free time to explore their communities and environment. Compared to past generations, we are homebound, afraid to let our kids outdoors to discover the world around them. And we move a lot. Families move from suburb to suburb, from state to state, with very little sense of how the environments in these areas differ.

Three custom steel pavilions (Star Building Systems) offer picnicking and gatherings for up to 575 people. Amenities include picnic tables, multiple barbeque grills, lighting, picnic counters, an access drive for catering services and electrical outlets.

The question became, "How do we develop a play area that allows for fun, creative, and imaginative play while also using the experience to interpret Chandler's history and educate visitors about the area's past?"

Another strategy discussed in the envisioning phase was designing a playground in which users could have different experiences with each visit, especially as children grow through the years and return to the site. The design team believed this could be achieved by various creative play opportunities and themed zones, by designing for seasonal change, accommodating multiple events at one time within the site and by allocating space for the possibility of future improvements.

As the average summer high in Chandler, Ariz. is 104 degrees, you think shade when it comes to park and rec design. Custom barn ramadas (Classic Recreation Systems) with weathervanes provide the all important shade and picnic space. The barn ramadas, located immediately adjacent to the main "Farm Land" playground, add to the agricultural theme, plus offer picnic tables and barbeques.

Shade, Glorious Shade
"One of the major requests we were getting from our citizens was a need for more shade in our parks and playgrounds. We wanted to create an outstanding playground facility, but also wanted to respond with a number of different shade solutions to make the playground experience safer and more comfortable," said Mickey Ohland.

With Arizona being one of the top areas in the nation for occurrences of skin cancer, and with the public's request, it was clear that plenty of shade needed to be provided for children, parents, and park users.

"City Land" reflects modern-day Chandler. Small trees were planted as street trees to retain a scale that relates to the young visitors. Small play structures, paved streets, parking stalls, school buses, fire trucks, city streetlights and traffic signs add to the city experience. City Land offers children the opportunity to drive the streets of Chandler on bikes, scooters, "Cozy Coupes" and tricycles, and experience familiar daily activities like riding a school bus or playing house.

Project Objectives
The goal had now been defined: Develop a destination playground of creative play experiences with a theme based on Chandler's rich agricultural history.

"Critter Land" play features explore native species of the Sonoran desert and fossils of the ancient past. Creative play elements include tortoise shells, large broken dinosaur eggs/bones and fossil exploration.

The objectives were defined:

  1. Create a "hub" of excitement, fun and energy in the heart of the 205-acre regional site.
  2. Place abundant shade in the playground to mitigate the desert heat.
  3. Use Chandler's reclaimed water system for the landscape.
  4. Maintain the park's rural aesthetic character and agricultural heritage.
  5. Interpret Chandler's history and educate visitors about the area's past.
  6. Design the playground so park users have varying play experiences with each visit and as the seasons change, plus accommodate multiple events.

  7. The larger-than-life Gila monster (Cemrock) offers a variety of heights for seating and climbing. It is fabricated of glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC), is hand detailed and hand painted. Area kids know to stay away from the real desert lizard, which can grow as long as two feet. It is the only venomous lizard native to the U.S., residing in the southwest and northwestern Mexico. Fortunately, the creature is a plodder.

J2 designers used the city's "Playtopia" working title to begin designing a playful "children's utopia." The design incorporated three distinct themes: "Critter Land," "Farm Land" and "City Land," inspired by Chandler's three historical eras: fossil discovery (the ancient past), farming and the city's modern-day growth. The central farm hay barn, visible from all areas of Tumbleweed Park, offers permanent shade, as do the 11 picnic ramadas, group pavilions, groves of trees and shade structures.

    Custom concrete dinosaur rib bones (Cemrock) protrude from the sand at the "Critter Land" exploration dig. This feature was inspired by the discovery of a 10,000-year old wooly mammoth found during the construction of a nearby utility project.

Farm Land
Playtopia encourages kids to run and roam freely over acres of grassy berms and open space. The open sight lines let parents keep track of their little ones, with no worrys about traffic. "Farm Land" is completely covered by the iconic 60 x 100 x 30-ft. high hay barn structure. Sun angles were studied for optimum shade in late spring and summer, while allowing sunlight in late autumn and winter. Wayfinding signs echo the agricultural heritage via images of children in alfalfa fields, girls on horseback and boys lingering outside Chandler High School during the early 1900s.

    UV-resistant fiberglass image panels (Pannier) in aluminum frames in "City Land" educate visitors about Chandler's rich heritage. The concept was to have kids playing next to photo imagery of children from different eras. For instance, children used to swim in the irrigation canals and exchange scrap metal for movie tickets during World War II. Other images include children on bicycles and Chandler's first general store. A Tecoma hybrid 'Orange Jubilee' is at left.

The architecture of the restroom/recreation office building follows the agricultural/ranch aesthetic with the use of slump block, a galvalume roof (a 55-percent aluminum-zinc alloy-coated sheet steel) and steel-color accents that match the barn structure. The building's breezeway provides an outstanding sight line from the main parking lot to the barn structure. Three barn-themed picnic ramadas in whimsical colors line the main circular walkway. Split-rail fencing, whimsical tractor tire imprints in concrete paving at pedestrian nodes and "hay barn" type shelters for three large pavilion gathering areas are added "farm" design elements.

    The 60 x 100 ft. hay barn structure shades the main play zone at Farm Land. It's also a way finding icon, as it's visible from all areas of the 205-acre park. Vinyl split rail fencing defines the playground edge. Plantings were designed in rows to simulate crops.

Critter Land
"Critter Land" reflects the ancient past and native species prevalent in the Chandler area, inspired by a 10,000-year old wooly mammoth fossil discovered during a nearby utility installation. Elements iniclude a dinosaur dig, an archeologically-themed fabric shade structure and larger-than-life hand painted, concrete Gila monster.

A Mesquite bosque, a native Arizona tree, is adjacent to Critter Land. This shaded picnic area has soft-surface gravel paving. The boulder climbing area, inspired by the local mountains and rock outcroppings, is quite popular. Concrete reptile eggshells and a desert tortoise shell offer more climbing and seating. The 18-inch retaining seatwall surrounding the Critter Land ramada is embedded with prehistoric fossil imagery.

    Large boulders around Critter Land encourage children to climb on natural elements. The "Pinnacle" and the "Point" rock climbers, made of GFRC, supplement the climbing experience. The boulders reflect the mountain ranges and rock formations surrounding the Chandler/Phoenix metro area.

City Land
"City Land" with its paved streets, lane striping, parking stalls, street trees and historical image sign walls lets children "drive" the "streets" on bikes, scooters, "Cozy Coupes," and tricycles. Children can also ride a school bus or play house.

Historical signage explains that area children during World War II swam in the irrigation canals and exchanged scrap metal for movie tickets to the local theater. Other historical images reflect the first general store in Chandler, children riding bicycles and the fashion of the times. Small trees were planted as street trees, scaled to the young visitors. Fire trucks, city streetlights and traffic signs add to the city experience.

    The farm yard-themed play structure suits Chandler's agricultural history. Spring riders, climbers, interactive enclosures, bouncy-bridges, ramps and slides encourage creative play. An ADA accessible ramp leads to the main playground structure. The 30-foot tall custom hay barn ramada shades the entire "Farm Land" playground structure.

Cooling the Heat Island
Environmental design is seen in the green open spaces and plantings. Chandler's reclaimed water sustains the landscape. The Phoenix heat island effect is significant. Tumbleweed Park is a cooling oasis within the surrounding asphalt and concrete paved areas. The large green space lets heat escape much quicker at night than the paved surfaces. With the various shade structures, 11 picnic ramadas and the three large group pavilions, the playground can shade up to 575 people at one time. Even when temperatures near 110 degrees, you'll see grandparents watching their grandchildren play under the barn shade structures. From October through April, the ramadas and pavilions are often reserved for weekend parties.

    Another design detail incorporating Chandler's agricultural history is life-size tractor tire imprints sandblasted into the integral color concrete paving.

A Destination with a Sense of Place
Tumbleweed Park has become a destination, and Playtopia the anchor. Chandler has provided an exciting, imaginative recreation and playground destination where kids can still be kids.

    Aside from shade, the fountains (Most Dependable Fountains) are the most appreciated amenity in this heat. The smaller child is drinking from the "jug filler" nozzle. Other amenities include steel benches, picnic tables, chairs, litter receptacles and steel bike racks.


The Team
Client: City of Chandler, Arizona
Park Development and Operations Manager: Mickey Ohland
Park Planning Superintendent: Don Tolle
Design Coordination: Dave McDowell, Aaron Woodward, Kris Kircher, Claud Cluff, Public History
Coordinator: Jean Reynolds
Architectural Design: Architekton, Tempe
Contractor / Construction Manager: Haydon Building Corp., Phoenix
Engineering, Geotechnical: Ricker, Atkinson, McBee, Morman & Associates, Tempe
Irrigation Design: Carl Kominsky Landscape Architect Inc., Tucson
Landscape Architecture, Civil Engineering and Construction Administration:
J2 Engineering and Environmental Design, Phoenix
Project Manager: Jeffrey Velasquez, RLA, ASLA
Lead Designer: Denise Dunlop, ASLA
Landscape Designer: Kevin Wallin
Principal In-Charge: Jeff Engelmann, RLA, ASLA
Conceptual Design: Dean Chambers, RLA, ASLA, QA/QC
Civil Engineering: Jeff Holzmeister, PE, Jason Touchin, PE
Civil Design: Michelle Ross-Touchin
Lighting and Electrical Engineering: Wright Engineering Corp., Chandler
Survey: AZTEC, Phoenix

Decomposed Granite: Pioneer Sand Co.
Fencing, Vinyl Split-Rail: Kroy Building Products
Image Walls: Pannier
Irrigation: Hunter, Rainbird, Guardshack
Lighting: Ameron Poles, Day-Bright, Gardco, Philips Lumec
Fabric Shade Structure: Killer Shade
Furnishings and Playground Equipment
o Cemrock
o PW Athletic
o Wabash Valley
o Playworld Systems
Pavers, Concrete: Pavestone
Pavilion and Hay Barn Shade Structures: Star Building Systems
Ramada Structures: Classic Recreation Systems
Water Fountains: Most Dependable Fountains

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October 15, 2019, 4:49 am PDT

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