20 Free Things to Do in Irvine, CA

Irvine, CA

Let me take you on a virtual tour of the free things to do in Irvine, California, and reveal just how much fun you can have without spending a dime.

We extend our heartfelt gratitude to the following individuals for their invaluable contributions to this article: Aleta Blanchette, Kay Griffin, Eden Hines, Lynn Hayes, Katalina Hooper, Donna Hartwell and Rachel Gomez.

Marvel at the Biodiversity of IRWD San Joaquin Marsh & Wildlife Sanctuary

Swift bird at IRWD San Joaquin Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary
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One of the best parts of living here is the easy access to nature, and there's no better spot than the IRWD San Joaquin Marsh & Wildlife Sanctuary.

It's a sprawling 300-acre wetland, crisscrossed with over 12 miles of trails perfect for tranquil walks or intense jogs.

Of course, the star of the sanctuary is the wildlife, particularly the birds.

Every visit is an opportunity to spot some of the 200+ bird species that call this sanctuary home.

From raptors soaring high in the sky to the smaller birds that flit among the reeds, there's never a dull moment for a bird enthusiast.

I've had the chance to photograph a number of these, making each trip a fun challenge.

A pelican on the waters of IRWD San Joaquin Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary
Kannan Sundaram / Shutterstock.com

For families with kids, IRWD San Joaquin Marsh & Wildlife Sanctuary is an educational gold mine. My kids and I often print out the bird list and see how many species we can spot during our visit.

It's a fun way to instill a love for nature in them, and I've found they are more observant and quiet on these trips, keen on ticking off as many species as they can.

The sanctuary also seems to be a hot spot for photography, with many enthusiasts coming with their big lenses and tripods.

And, if you're like me, who also enjoys peaceful walks, the back bay is an excellent spot for that.

Parking is easy, and the trails are well-marked, making it a stress-free trip every time.

A heron at IRWD San Joaquin Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary
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Let Your Kids Burn Off Energy at Irvine’s Adventure Playground

As the scent of fresh grass fills my nostrils, I’m instantly transported back to childhood, to days filled with laughter, scraped knees, and the pure, unadulterated joy that comes from just playing.

That’s the magic of Adventure Playground in Irvine, a place my family and I frequent on bright and sunny weekends.

What's not to love about this place?

Adventure Playground is a mecca for kids and adults alike.

There’s always a flurry of activity: children constructing formidable forts from giant Lego blocks, others whizzing down slides and battling it out on the obstacle course.

It also provides a pleasant respite for adults.

We can either join in the fun or simply recline in one of the shaded areas, take leisurely strolls along the beautiful pathways, engage in a friendly match at the foosball and ping pong tables, or simply savor the delightful cacophony of children's laughter.

For the little ones who love mess and muck, there’s a large mud pit that they can reign over with Tonka trucks.

The facilities are well thought out, with clean restrooms and water fountains scattered about.

It’s all about creating a safe and fun environment.

There’s even a sign-in sheet to ensure that every child is accounted for.

Also, bonus points for its proximity to the public library!

A day at the playground can be coupled with a visit to the library – a perfect blend of fun and learning.

Pay Respect to Fallen Heroes at Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial

Welcome sign of Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial
Brian MacIntosh, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There's a sense of tranquility that tends to sweep over me each time I visit the Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial.

Whether it’s the meticulous maintenance, the beautiful playground, or the sobering reminder of the lives lost in service to our nation, every inch of this park seems to whisper stories of bravery and sacrifice.

One of the most touching aspects of this park is the kids’ tags. Receiving them is an experience that fills my heart with both sorrow and pride.

I still remember when I received the tag for my son, Staff Sgt Randy M Haney, a brave soul who paid the ultimate price for our safety and way of life in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.

Holding his tag in my hand, seeing his name etched into the material, it's a stark, heartbreaking reminder of his life and sacrifice.

This park is more than just a space, it is a living testament to our heroes.

Every name etched on the memorial is a story, a life, a sacrifice.

Memorials at Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial
Brian MacIntosh, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s heart-wrenching to think that more names might need to be added, a grim testament to the harsh realities of war.

Despite the somber reminders, the Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial is a beautiful place.

The greenery is well-kept, the playground is a delightful space for children, and the overall atmosphere is serene.

It's a wonderful place for quiet reflection, a place to honor and remember our servicemen.

Every time I visit, I leave with a heavy heart but also a renewed sense of gratitude. I am reminded that the freedom we enjoy every day is not free.

It has been paid for with the lives of brave men and women like my son.

The grounds of Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial
Brian MacIntosh, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hit Your Fitness Goals at Chaparral Park

Just another sunny afternoon in Irvine and there I was, at one of my favorite places – Chaparral Park.

You have to experience it to believe it; the panoramic views of the city are breathtakingly beautiful.

There's nothing like standing on top of the hill after a good hike, breathing in the fresh air, and just taking in the rustic landscape.

The park is a stone's throw away from Bonita Canyon Elementary School, making it a frequently visited place by the students.

It also offers a playground and multiple trees, providing ample shade for a perfect picnic.

But there's more to the park than just lush greenery and picnic spots.

Here's a fun fact: It's a gem for all RC car enthusiasts.

Get ready to have an adventurous ride with your RC Crawlers, starting from the gatekeeper!

One of the most enticing parts of the park is the rock climbs on the ascend.

It's like having a mini Moab right in the middle of Irvine.

Visitors here are very conscientious and keep the park clean, and I always make sure to contribute to that effort.

It's like an unspoken rule among all of us who love the park - we want to keep it pristine.

Now, if you're not into RC cars or rock climbing, don't worry.

There's plenty for you, too.

The park is not only for thrill-seekers but also for those who prefer a leisurely stroll or a mild workout.

There's a fitness course for an outdoor workout.

And yes, it is dog-friendly!

So, don't forget to bring your furry friend along for a walk on the trails.

Have a Peaceful Retreat at Mariners Church - Irvine

Exterior of the Mariners Church
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My first encounter with Mariners Church - Irvine happened back in 2018.

Over the years, I've come to admire the beautiful campus and diverse ministry groups that form the backbone of this community.

The sermons, thought-provoking and full of wisdom, have been a guiding light in my life.

If you're seeking a place to deepen your faith, I urge you to see what Mariners has to offer.

The lawn of Mariners Church
Steve Cukrov / Shutterstock.com

Mariners Church - Irvine has a warm, welcoming community that has become a significant part of my life.

A chapel at Mariners Church
Steve Cukrov / Shutterstock.com

Meditate at Noguchi Garden

It's almost surreal how a place like Noguchi Garden can exist in the heart of the city.

A sort of urban oasis, its compact, minimalist design is a representation of California itself.

My eyes were instantly drawn to the combination of modern architecture and minimalist greenery.

The way the plants softened the hard lines of the space struck me as brilliant.

The contrast of the garden against the backdrop of the city is truly a sight to behold.

But what really makes Noguchi Garden so special to me is the tranquility it offers.

Despite the city's hustle and bustle, stepping into the garden makes you feel like you've been transported to another world.

A world where the noise fades into the background, and all you're left with is the calming sounds of nature.

I often find myself here after a long day, just sitting on one of the benches, staring at the whole landscape.

There's just something about the place that calms my mind and soothes my soul.

It's like my personal sanctuary, a safe haven from the stresses of daily life.

I've seen couples come here for their wedding photos.

The beauty and serenity of the garden provide the perfect backdrop for such a memorable occasion.

It's also a popular spot for local artists, who come here to find inspiration in its unique blend of nature and art.

Parking is also available, making it a convenient spot for people from all walks of life to visit.

But the best part?

It's rarely crowded.

It still feels like a hidden gem, a secret escape in the middle of the city.

Have a Family Time at William R Mason Regional Park

A turtle at William R Mason Regional Park
Lina Altoaimi / Shutterstock.com

I've been fortunate to have William R Mason Regional Park as my backyard for over a decade.

I can tell you, without a doubt, that this place offers more than 300 acres of pure delight.

I've spent countless afternoons here, indulging in various activities such as picnics, softball, volleyball, and even golf.

I cherish my early morning hikes through the park's trails and finish it off with a rewarding bike ride.

There's something distinctly therapeutic about being surrounded by so much greenery as the morning sun peeks over the horizon.

The park is ideal for family outings, too. My toddler loves the play area, and as a bonus, it's conveniently located near the exit.

So, if you're planning on bringing your little ones along, head toward parking lots D, E, and F.

And if you're like me and prefer the tranquility of the lakeside, you'll want to head over to parking lot B.

Ducks at William R Mason Regional Park
Lina Altoaimi / Shutterstock.com

Speaking of the lake, it's a beautiful sight and a central feature of the park.

A picnic by the lakeside, feeding the ducks, and taking in the calm, picturesque scenery is a must-do experience.

The park transforms into a photographer's paradise, with ample opportunities for some great shots - be it of the wildlife or the stunning sunsets over the lake.

On special occasions, the park hosts sunset cinema and music concerts, and guess what?

The parking is absolutely free during these events!

Grilling a barbecue by the lake, watching your children play safely in the well-maintained playgrounds, or just sitting quietly and taking in the serenity, William R Mason Regional Park is my haven in bustling city life.

Trail at William R Mason Regional Park
Lina Altoaimi / Shutterstock.com

Roll in the Grass at San Marco Park

There's nothing quite like a sunny afternoon spent at San Marco Park.

This 5-acre haven, nestled in the heart of Irvine, has become my go-to spot for weekends and evenings.

Tucked away from the city's hustle and bustle, it offers a serene and beautiful environment that never fails to rejuvenate me.

The park stands out for its immaculate cleanliness and well-maintained facilities.

I often start my day here, walking my beloved golden retriever along the beautifully manicured lawns.

The sight of the morning dew glistening on the grass is a treat to the eyes.

The walking trail, which leads to the picturesque San Diego Creek, is always a highlight of our morning walks.

One can never get bored at San Marco Park.

It's a hub of activity, no matter what time of day you visit.

The basketball court is my favorite place to unwind after a long day.

The competition is always fierce, and the games are loads of fun.

It's also a great place to meet fellow locals and make new friends.

For family outings, the picnic facilities are a blessing.

There are numerous picnic tables scattered across the park, all equipped with barbecues.

I've spent countless delightful afternoons barbecuing with family and friends, the smell of grilled delights wafting through the air.

And if that's not enough, there's also plenty of space for volleyball games and other outdoor activities.

The green areas are so spacious that you can even organize a small neighborhood tournament.

Play Ball at the Bill Barber Memorial Park

The grounds of Bill Barber Memorial Park
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Have you ever fancied throwing a family gathering or a picnic where you can enjoy a game of softball, volleyball, or tennis?

Well, the Bill Barber Memorial Park is just the place for you! This expansive park is a dream come true for all sports enthusiasts like myself.

As a tennis enthusiast, I can't help but be drawn to the impeccably maintained tennis courts every weekend.

The baseball diamonds, on the other hand, will make you feel like you're in a real stadium with their actual seating arrangements. And the best part? It's all public!

The park also houses an amphitheater, making it an ideal spot for live performances.

And let's not forget about the kids! With several interconnected playgrounds dotting the park, it's a veritable haven for any child.

Trail at Bill Barber Memorial Park
Lina Altoaimi / Shutterstock.com

One thing to note, though – the park is so enticing that you might spend an entire day there.

So, remember to pack enough food and drinks to keep everyone energized and hydrated.

Immerse in Local Talent at the Jack & Shanaz Langson Institute & Museum of California Art

The moment you step inside the Jack & Shanaz Langson Institute & Museum of California Art, you're transported to a world of colors and landscapes that only the golden state of California can inspire.

Every exhibit is a rotating showcase of American Impressionist art that provides a window into the beautiful, diverse CA landscapes.

The scenic beauty encapsulated in these paintings is nothing short of breathtaking.

Each visit here is like taking a 30-minute journey through the history of Orange County and the natural beauty of Southern California.

As an art enthusiast who has been living in OC for years, I have come to appreciate how the artists have captured the essence of our local landscapes.

It's more than just a display of art; it's a collection of stories told through the lens of various talented artists.

One of the best things about Langson IMCA is that it's not just about the art.

The staff is friendly, knowledgeable, and always willing to share insightful details about the displayed artworks.

Plus, parking isn't a hassle as it's validated, and the admission is free.

So, every trip is convenient and cost-effective.

As someone who has experienced the beauty of Jack & Shanaz Langson Institute & Museum of California Art time and time again, I can say there's always something to learn from each visit.

It's not just a place to see art; it's a place to feel art.

I always look forward to my next visit and the new perspectives it will bring.

Cool Off at Heritage Community Park

A gazebo at Heritage Community Park
Steve Cukrov / Shutterstock.com

There's truly nothing like a day spent at the Heritage Community Park, a 36-acre haven that never fails to take my city-worn soul by surprise.

My favorite things about the park are its lighted sports fields, playground, and picnic space.

There's also an impressively large community center I often visit. It's an impressive place, indeed.

My day usually starts with a jog around the park, which I find incredibly refreshing.

The park is indeed a versatile delight, featuring not one, not two, but three swimming pools!

It's the perfect spot to cool off during the scorching summer days.

Mid-morning is the perfect time to play tennis or basketball at the park's well-maintained courts.

The competition amongst friends often gets fierce, but it's all in good fun and the spirit of friendly rivalry.

Pond fountain at Heritage Community Park
Steve Cukrov / Shutterstock.com

I often bring my little niece along, who can't seem to get enough of the playground. It's a safe, engaging space where she can let her imagination run wild.

Heritage Community Park also boasts a picnic space, which we often make use of for those impromptu family get-togethers.

One of my favorite spots in the park is the beautiful lake, home to ducks, turtles, and other animals.

There's an ethereal kind of peace that envelops you while you're there.

The park also has scattered benches near the lake, perfect for a break to soak in the atmosphere or even catch up on some reading.

What's more, the park is conveniently located near the art & community center, making it an ideal place to head to after a day of exploring local culture.

Roll through Harvard Skate Park

I still remember the first time I dropped into Harvard Skate Park.

It has a certain old-school charm, like stepping back in time to the 90s, with all the lumpy, bumpy features that characterize a classic old skate park.

But here's the thing - while it might not have the modern flare of some newer parks, there's something endearingly authentic about this place.

One of the best things about Harvard Skate Park is that it's free, and trust me, that's a big deal when you're a skater on a budget.

And thankfully, it's got free parking too.

But just a tip: make sure to check the park's hours before you head over because it gets locked when it's out of hours.

I see tons of kids practicing their scooter and skateboard skills, always reminding me to recommend elbow and knee pads, especially for those bigger drops.

See the City in a New Perspective with the Great Park Balloon Ride

A Great Park Balloon mid-air
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Every time I walk into the Great Park, something magical happens.

The vast expanse of greenery fills up my senses, and the humdrum of city life seems to fade away into the background.

But nothing compares to the sight of the majestic Great Park Balloon standing tall amidst the sprawling park, beckoning every visitor to experience the thrill of a hot air balloon ride.

There's a sense of anticipation that fills the air every time, even though I've seen it countless times, it never gets old.

I remember the first time I took the ride, the breathtaking view from the top was nothing short of spectacular.

The entire park unfolded beneath me - the soccer fields buzzing with young energy, the playground filled with laughter and shrieks of joy, and the visitors' center with its unique collection of merch - an aerial view that I will never forget.

It's usually on a first-come, first-serve basis for the hot air balloon rides, so I've learned to come early to secure a spot.

Looking up a Great Park Balloon
mikeledray / Shutterstock.com

But let me share a secret: nothing compares to the sight of the setting sun from the top of the Great Park Balloon.

The whole sky, painted in hues of orange, pink, and violet, is a sight to behold.

Apart from the balloon ride, the Great Park also boasts a waterpark that is a favorite among kids and adults alike.

Endless hours of fun and frolic await you here.

And if you're a foodie like me, the vending area at the visitors' center is a must-visit.

You can grab a bite and sip on a drink, all while taking in the spectacular view of the park.

Catch a Concert at Turtle Rock Community Park

I love to start my mornings at the Turtle Rock Community Park - a gem hidden in plain sight in the heart of Irvine, where I've resided for years.

This park is a sanctuary for anyone who enjoys the outdoors and maintains an active lifestyle.

Activities are endless here, from the gleaming tennis courts, where I sometimes engage in a friendly match, to the basketball and volleyball courts, where I've cheered on many local neighborhood games.

The play areas are a kid's paradise and often bring a smile to my face, watching them enjoy the swings, slides, and monkey bars.

Weekends are for picnics, and the park provides the perfect setting with its numerous picnic hubs.

The barbecue grills often waft tantalizing smells of grilled delicacies, making it a popular spot for family gatherings or birthday celebrations.

However, my personal favorite is the serene riverside setting where ducks often gather, providing a peaceful ambiance for a quiet read or contemplation.

One of the park's unique features, its amphitheater, has often been the stage for local theatrical productions and concerts.

I've spent many evenings there, enjoying the harmony of music under a starlit sky.

The rec room, too, offers a variety of indoor games, making it a popular spot among both kids and adults.

The park's picturesque layout of wide-open spaces surrounded by trees is a beauty to behold, especially when the stream flowing through it mirrors the lush greenery.

The park, with its variety of vibrant landscapes, also proves to be a haven for wildlife, making it that much more delightful to visit.

Other Things to Do Nearby

Treat Your Inner Child to the Downtown Disney District

Rainforest cafe at Downtown Disney District
Kit Leong / Shutterstock.com

There's this little magical corner of Anaheim where one can sense the enchantment without having to step foot inside the park itself.

You guessed it - Downtown Disney District.

It's like finding a bit of pixie dust sprinkled over a lively promenade teeming with shops, restaurants, and special events.

In my book, a trip to the Downtown Disney District is a tradition, a vital part of Anaheim's culture.

The place is always buzzing with energy, people from all walks of life coming together to enjoy a good time.

My personal favorite? Bowling at Splitsville Luxury Lanes.

There's nothing like the thrill of a game well-played with family and friends.

What's more, they offer some of the best drinks and food I've ever had at a bowling alley.

One tip: there might be a waiting period for the lanes due to its popularity, so bring your shopping shoes to kill time!

Dragon sculpture on the LEGO building
Kit Leong / Shutterstock.com

The District is also home to a wide variety of shops. It's my go-to spot for picking up souvenirs or grabbing a quick coffee from Starbucks.

Evenings here are lit up with live shows happening on the central stage.

The ambiance is cheerful, albeit a bit crowded at times, but that's part of the charm.

When it comes to dining, the options are plenty. The eateries are always clean, and the décor—absolutely charming.

Last fall, I remember they had pumpkins all over, creating this cozy autumnal vibe.

But what caught my eye were the succulent planters hanging from the lamp posts - so beautiful and drought-resistant!

It was details like these that confirm why this place holds a special place in my heart.

A heads-up for first-timers: do validate your parking ticket. If you spend $20, you get 3 hours of free parking or dine at their restaurants for a whopping 5 hours of free parking.

Visit the Downtown Disney District once, and I'm sure you'll be hooked, just like me.

Display in the LEGO building
Kit Leong / Shutterstock.com

Watch Stellar Performances at Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Exterior of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts
Kelvinkccheng / Shutterstock.com

There's something quite magical about living so close to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, a place that serves as my cultural oasis right here in Costa Mesa, California.

Not only is this venue vast with its grand 3,000-seat opera-style hall, but it also boasts stages specifically designed for theatre and dance performances and an Arts Plaza that welcomes everyone.

One of my most memorable experiences at the Segerstrom was seeing the Jeff Goldblum / Mildred Snitzer Jazz Orchestra.

I tell you, the acoustics in that theater are no joke. Imagine celebrating your birthday in the company of such sensational sounds reverberating all around you; it was an experience to cherish!

It's not just the quality of performances that make the Segerstrom stand out, but it's the way the venue is designed and managed.

Accessibility is not an issue at all. There's plenty of space for wheelchair users, and bathrooms are conveniently located.

Night lights of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts
Kit Leong / Shutterstock.com

The staff are always courteous, and the place is immaculately clean.

Plus, they always manage to stay on schedule, which is a sheer delight for someone like me who values punctuality.

One of the greatest discoveries at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts was the Pacific Symphony.

It's a hidden gem that I now visit three or four times per year to enjoy their musical and symphonic productions.

The concert hall is designed in such a way that there's good seating throughout, and the sound quality is simply top-notch.

Interior of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts
Kit Leong / Shutterstock.com

Step back in Time at the Old Orange County Courthouse

Exterior of the Old Orange County Courthouse
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There's nothing quite like spending a sunny afternoon immersed in rich local history at the Old Orange County Courthouse.

Nestled in a stately 1901 building, it's an enduring symbol of our county's rich heritage.

You know, it's funny - I've been living in this county for 20 years, and I just recently discovered the convenience of the metered parking, which even takes credit cards!

Stepping into the courthouse, the museum is right there at the entry-level.

The last time I was there, I got my marriage license in record time, under 20 minutes with an appointment. Efficient and quick - just how I like it!

But it's not all about the practicalities. This place has an atmosphere. Last Valentine's Day, I witnessed the most beautiful elopement there.

Old Orange County Courthouse turned out to be the perfect, romantic setting - elegant and timeless.

Interior of the Old Orange County Courthouse
Steve Cukrov / Shutterstock.com

The staff are always friendly and accommodating, but that day they went above and beyond to create a memorable occasion for the young couple.

There are plenty of picturesque spots for photo opportunities, making it an ideal location for such special occasions.

A little tip - don't miss the basement! That's where the real historical treasures are housed.

A chapel in the Old Orange County Courthouse
Steve Cukrov / Shutterstock.com

Discover Local Flora at the Fullerton Arboretum

Daytime view of Fullerton Arboretum
Steve Cukrov / Shutterstock.com

Whenever I need a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, I find my solace in the Fullerton Arboretum.

Nestled in Fullerton, this 26-acre sprawling green haven is my go-to place for peace and tranquility.

Walking through the lush pathways, I'm greeted by the melodious songs of birds, making the whole experience truly magical.

Fullerton Arboretum houses over 4,000 types of plants, and every visit feels like a new adventure.

The well-paved walking trails are perfect for a leisurely stroll or a brisk walk, and the variety of plants is a sight to behold.

The paths may be unpaved, but they're friendly even for a stroller.

The Arboretum also flaunts a museum, and the well-maintained rose and sunflower gardens are adorned with quaint gazebos for seating.

Enclosed under the canopy of trees, these benches provide a much-needed break from the sun.

Welcome sign of Fullerton Arboretum
The Image Party / Shutterstock.com

It's a sight to see turtles paddling in the ponds, and the sight of baby turtles is simply endearing.

It's no less than a nature gem turned into heaven after rainfall.

For families with children, it's a perfect place to run, explore, and learn about nature.

Picnics at this verdant expanse are a regular weekend activity for me and my family.

The sunny and shady spots, coupled with the abundance of benches, make it a perfect place for a family outing.

What makes me visit the Fullerton Arboretum again and again is its ability to provide a tranquil escape, a slow walk amidst nature, away from the crowds.

It's a place where I unwind, destress, and connect with nature.

After all, there's nothing like the quiet rustling of leaves and the chirping of birds to soothe a weary mind.

Vibrant flowers at Fullerton Arboretum
B1288 / Shutterstock.com

Final Thoughts

Every corner of Irvine, California, offers a unique experience, an opportunity to learn, and a chance to appreciate the beauty and diversity of our surroundings.

Whether you're a long-term resident or a first-time visitor, exploring Irvine doesn't have to break the bank.

We are so fortunate to live in a city where fun and discovery are always within reach, and, often, completely free of charge.

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