The palm trees of the Bay Bridge and civic waste

The sweeping design of the Bay Bridge’s east span includes 37 Canary Island Date Palms, planted in the median that creates space for the bike path and between lanes of opposing traffic. However, just months after the bridge opened—after years of delays caused by problems with construction, skyrocketing costs, and other issues, compounded by safety concerns surrounding the concrete and steel used, an issue that’s still ongoing—motorists started complaining about a very visible problem. The trees, costing around $1,000 each, were dying. This summer, Cal Trans finally began replacing some of the worst specimens, to the tune of approximately $10,000.

While $10,000 is not a lot of money in the grand scheme of costs associated with the bridge, the fate of the Bay Bridge palm trees is kind of symbolic of everything that went wrong with the construction of the bridge, but also of civic waste in general. Really poor choices were made throughout the design, planning, and construction process of the replacement span and we’re going to be dealing with them for years into the future simply because people couldn’t organise themselves in a sensible way to get the project done in a cost-effective and appropriate way.

Californians know the endlessly cycling saga of the Bay Bridge—those who aren’t familiar with it just need to know that it ran wildly over budget, took six years longer than it was supposed to, and was plagued with controversies from almost the very start. They included bad welds, corroding support rods (which still haven’t been resolved), substandard concrete, bolting failures, and leaks in the substructure. Some of these problems may not have preventable, but many could have been, and they were evidence of very poor project management and quality control. There’s no reason the process should have been so messy and prolonged, and the fact that it was points to systemic problems with public works in California: Notably, the east span of the Bay Bridge was the most complex and expensive public works project in the state’s history, so you’d think they could have bothered to get it right.

The trees were part of the vision from the very start, allegedly part of the sweeping and majestic vista. Canary Island Date Palms are, as the name implies, not native to California, and they’re costly to install. You can’t exactly plant seedlings and wait for them to mature. You need to transplant adult trees, which requires careful handling to remove the trees from a nursery, bring them on site, and use heavy equipment for planting. They were allegedly selected on the grounds of their resistance to wind and salt, making them better choices than, for example, oaks, which likely couldn’t withstand the harsh conditions on the open span of the bridge (and would likewise require transplanting as mature trees, which wouldn’t be well tolerated).

When the trees started dying, it seemed like one more thing going wrong with the bridge, but in this case, it was a very visible and obvious thing. Residents were frustrated with cost and time overruns, but once the bridge was underway, it couldn’t very well be halted without considerable expense. Replacing ornamental trees, however, is another matter—but replacements were duly installed, without really researching why the previous trees got sick and died, or how to protect the new plantings.

Given that the designers of the new span want it to be an iconic part of the California landscape, and a symbol of the state’s engineering history, it’s odd that a non-indigenous species was chosen. There are numerous wind, salt, and cold-tolerant species of trees that are native to California and could have been chosen instead, like manzanita, which would grow like a weed after a nuclear bomb went off. Similarly, Monterey pines are also indigenous, and many grow along cliffs and headlands, illustrating their hardiness—moreover, they grow into really cool shapes over time as they respond to wind and predominant conditions where they live. For that matter, Monterey cypress—the ‘lone tree’ is a famous example of the species—is also indigenous to California and could totally handle conditions on the bridge.

Choosing palm trees to decorate the bridge was kind of a reminder that most people don’t understand the climate of Northern California very well. Palms do grow here, but they grow much more abundantly in Southern California, which has more appropriate environmental conditions. Moreover, it seems really ridiculous not to plant an indigenous species on an iconic landmark in California—wouldn’t you want to go out of your way to celebrate a tree or shrub from California, with a long ecological connection to the state and its landscape?

The palms were a striking symbol of waste, but they were also a symbol of refusing to acknowledge context or adapt to a given environment, which is often a failure in public works and civic projects. There were plenty of great landscaping options for the bridge and they were abandoned in favour of some sort of dream of what California ‘should’ or ‘could’ look like, instead of a hat tip to what California does look like, and how beautiful and majestic our many trees and shrubs are out in the wild and in landscaping.

Just think of the money that could have been saved by considering the environment, instead of trying to create a new one.

Image: Bay Bridge East Span Under Construction, James Daisa, Flickr