US/Portugal culture: Fences and walls

A recent article in the New York Times discusses the fate of a promenade along the edge of the sea cliffs in Newport, Rhode Island. The Cliff Walk, as it’s called, is lined in places by not-very-scenic chain link fencing, in order to protect people from going off the walk and hurting themselves.

cliff walk

(Photo by Gretchen Ertl for the NYT)

Naturally, accidents still happen. Accident victims want someone to take the blame and to compensate them. A recent state Supreme Court decision allowing one accident victim to sue both the city and the state may have a dramatic effect on the Cliff Walk’s scenic appeal and its attraction to tourists and residents alike: both government entities now have a strong financial incentive to wall off more sections of the Cliff Walk, and pepper the rest with signs warning of the dangers of stepping off the walk. Protection from liability trumps mere scenery, every time.

One of the first things I noticed about Portugal was the lack of infrastructure designed to protect people from themselves. For instance, I took this photo from the castle wall of Óbidos, a small walled town north of Lisbon:


Note that the walkway along the inside of the castle wall is made of rough stone (yep, the original centuries-old material) and is barely wide enough for two people to walk side by side. It has no fence or guardrail along the inside, despite a drop of some 6 meters (20 feet) to the rocky, uneven ground below. Also note that the stairs to the walkway are made from the same rough stones, are quite narrow, and similarly lack a guardrail.

The first thing I said when I saw this was, “Holy shit, this would never be allowed in the US!” (I was just a visitor then, and still easily shocked by the idea of people being held accountable for their own choices.)

My companion at the time, who was not yet my wife, looked at me oddly. “Why not?”

“Because this is dangerous! What if someone fell off this thing? Broken bones would probably be the least of the damage.”

“If a person is worried about keeping their balance, or doesn’t feel safe up here, then they shouldn’t be coming up here in the first place,” said my pre-wife reasonably.

Here was a radical concept!

“Okay,” I said, “what if someone comes up here feeling safe, but slips and falls anyway? Doesn’t the town of Óbidos have responsibility, since it hasn’t installed any railings?”

This earned me an incredulous look. “Responsibility for what? For the person’s decision to climb the stairs? Why should the town take responsibility for individual choice? That’s the antithesis of freedom.”

This gave me a lot to think about. Óbidos gets scads of tourists, due to its proximity to Lisbon and its intact castle walls, which contain the whole town. So it’s not like this is a remote place where only the residents go. In fact, these walls are specifically marketed as a prime example of architecture and history. In the US they’d be lined with guardrails and warning signs, and the particularly treacherous parts would be blocked off altogether.

But what a loss that would be. Guardrails, signs and blockades would destroy the living history that a visitor feels when walking the walls of Óbidos. The whole attraction is the fact that these walls haven’t changed in several hundred years, except to get a bit more weathered.

These days I’m a lot more accustomed to this governing concept. I take it for granted that if there’s a hole in the pedestrian walk on my town’s main street, it’s my job to see it and not step in it. It’s not the town council’s job to rope it off and post a warning sign. I actually find this kind of refreshing: the Portuguese government assumes that I’m an adult!

Of course, this concept can be abused, and I suspect that if the government or a business entity really does need to be held accountable for careless or reckless actions, it would be an uphill fight. But on the whole, I like being treated as a person who is responsible for my own choices.

And I really like the fact that when I go to the beautiful sea cliffs of Lagos or Sagres, there are no fences, walls or warning signs. Just natural beauty.


(The crumbling, gorgeous sea cliffs of Sagres — and not a fence in sight.)

About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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49 Responses to US/Portugal culture: Fences and walls

  1. gracierios says:

    Portugal is beautiful! 🙂

  2. Oh, verry beatiuful sea and I like it! Thanks

  3. Jackie Miller says:

    I was lucky enough to see the gardens in Suzhou,China, sister city to Portland, before Portland put in our lovely Chinese Garden. When it opened, it looked almost the same as Suzhou’s. On my next visit, the stepping stones were chained off and a big sign posted to warn of danger. Next visit, the rock maze was closed, with signs posted.The tranquility of the place was destroyed. I’ve not been back.

  4. Fausto says:

    Found out this post of yours by chance. I’m portuguese and me and my friends sometimes joke about the possibility of blaming the town council for stepping on a dog turd – of course that would never happen here, but since some odd lady sued a restaurant in the US just because her coffee was too hot, we shouldn’t be surprised by it.
    I’m glad to know not every american think like that – that’s retarded, IMHO.

  5. 79sparrows says:

    This is an AWESOME post! VERY interesting….
    It was great to see Rhode Island compared to Portugal. I’ve always thought we are way too sue-happy here, and some people would rather take a chance knowing they could get something out of an accident should one happen.

  6. Nikole Hahn says:

    Totally agree. It’s getting ridiculous here. If they would just pass a law to end frivilous lawsuits nationally economy would definitly get better and maybe it would start us on the road to more accountabilty and responsiblity. Maybe I’m praying for too much? Great blog.

  7. [[bondiebluesy]] says:

    nicce website..

  8. etyk says:

    Nice post, I’m Portuguese and I was interested on your views eg. american 1st amendment vs. portuguese live and let live.
    The Castle that you mentioned is a wonderfull example of how things were, evolution shouldn’t give our governments the power to treat us like retards.

    Anyho, you’re welcome back anytime 🙂

  9. I enjoyed your post. Isn’t nice to be treated like we have common sense instead of like children? I find it unfortunate that we’ve become so used to our government regulating everything that we’ve lost our common sense. How refreshing that there are still places in the world that assume people have a bit of sense!

  10. claudsy says:

    I have to admit to laughing all the way through this posting. My sister and her late husband and I have discussed this very suject for years. We’ve always said that the gov’t will protect us from ourselves to the point of taking away any brain that we might actually have.

    I often wonder if the true purpose behind all of this nonsense is that our culture has become so lawsuit happy and the justice system so concenrned about public outcry that rubber stamping has become the justice of choice here, which only leads to more protective nonsense.

    The viscious circle just keeps rolling along as a result.

    You’ve made such good, logical and honest points. Too bad so many can’t understand the concept of personal responsiblity any longer.

  11. Abby says:

    That’s a really interesting post. I think a lot more could be improved by people actually taking responsibility for their own behaviour instead of always finding someone else to blame.

    And it would definitely help keep that beauty in its natural state! Thanks for writing 🙂

  12. Michele says:

    Another great post – I love the mix of science and culture that I find on your blog.
    I had to comment on this one – it’s incredible to me (a Canadian) that on the one hand so many in US society seem to insist on this kind of “responsibility” by government entities and yet on the other hand, the concept of universal health care (as a responsibility of government) is so vehemently hated by so many. Seems to me it’s really about benefiting the private parties involved – lawyers on the one hand and insurance companies on the other.

    Love your blog!!

  13. Kugai says:

    It’s definitely an interesting juxtaposition over personal responsibility.

    I think I prefer the Portuguese way, in which you are held accountable for your own actions rather than the American way where you blame the Govt (or whomever is in charge) for your own actions, stupid or not.

  14. Most of the Grand Canyon is fenceless, and remains that way despite several people falling (or jumping) to their death every year.

    • Fausto says:

      “Most of the Grand Canyon is fenceless, and remains that way despite several people falling (or jumping) to their death every year.”

      Shhhhh!!! Don’t be giving them any ideas!

  15. dyspersja says:

    I’ve read somewhere that over half of the world’s population of lawyers works in US. Now I know why 😉

  16. wiscbear says:

    Great post. you forgot to add the handicap accessibility that would have to be added to the castle wall, and possibly proper lighting and the addition of no-skid surfaces, and some of those corners look pretty sharp. Wouldn’t want little Johnny bumping his head or worse.
    I spent 30 days working in Oporto 20 years ago. A wonderful country with great people.

  17. Found your blog by chance and the title of Portugal caught my interest. I am of Azorean descent but have never seen the “homeland”. You are so right with this post! Americans have been dumbdown to the point of being embarrassing. I have met people from other countries who laugh at our health care & legal systems. Not to mention the “all about me” mentality.
    I am sure too that there have maybe been incidents in places like this you mentioned where an oblivious American stubbed their toe and possibly pitched a fit.
    Beautiful pictures! And I agree, very majestic without the lighting, rails, wire etc.

  18. call2write says:

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

    Your post is a refreshing change from the ‘blame game’ that gets so much print and air time. There is, of course, times when another person or entity is at fault. But it seems like the concept of personal responsibility for one’s actions is in danger of becoming extinct.

  19. pinky says:

    Portugal is Portugal
    I think it’s nice … source

  20. darabuc says:

    I once worked in a toy factory, and in translating some instructions of use, I could only ask my boss: “Should we really say ‘do not eat the batteries’, ‘do not open them with a knife’?” The game came from the US and it didn’t even include the batteries… My boss discarded it as a sort of American legal stuff but told me to leave it as it was. So, it ended being contagious. But any of these days someone will sue the Everest for the frostbites… Unluckily I think Europe (at least Spain, where I live) is already in the way of becoming the sort of “don’t do anything without a lawyer in your pocket” or “first sue, then ask (and never bother to think)”.

  21. You got me thinking. In one hand we all individuals have the freedom to make choices like where to climb. At the other hand are the keepers, goverment, whoever in charge, they would let people to climb even if they can die? Really? Is like, having a zoo and the Lion picking some bananas is just let alone. “Sir, there is not cage, but if you like some adventure, adrenaline, you paid me $$$$$ and go in. Paid to die?” That is hilarious. I’m for the fence. Does not look that pretty, may be, but Life is prettier to keep it longer. Huh! Awesome article.
    ~Great Love to you,
    Mirian from peelingtheorange.

  22. Ana_ñ says:

    That is a major contrast astutely presented. Well, talking about beauty without fences, I am still dizzy after those photos of Norway’s Lysefjord you posted recently.

    We can see an apparent contradiction: US citizens complaining because the government want to rule their lives (they want their freedom to carry guns) and they do not want to be “socialized” like other Western countries (universal health care), but also they demand to be constantly protected (from themselves?) These are only clichés but useful for thinking.

    Great post: security – freedom – personal responsibility – common good. Thank you.

  23. I recently posted some photos on Flickr that I took on a walk along the canal that runs through the middle of Birmingham (England). There are no guard rails to stop people falling into the water – nor did I expect any.
    I had a comment from someone in Japan saying that in Japan there would be railings and warning signs. I presume that would also be the case in the USA?
    Surely people should be able to see open water and think ‘I must be careful or I will fall in’ – and also restrain children.

  24. M. says:

    Very interesting post.
    I live on the other side of EU and things look about the same here like in Portugal.
    Nobody sues mayor for holes in the pedestrian walk. Well, potholes may be exception :).
    Fences around dangerous historical or natural places? I’ve seen only one AFAIR – a newly built platform over stone run, to protect it from too many tourists trampling it down.
    But we do have fences – well, since we can’t shoot a person for trespassing ;), we put fences around private properties, in vain hope that it will stop intruders.

  25. I’m from Portugal and we do have signs and rails in those cliffs but only on the sightseeing places or near the beach because thats where people go. Everywhere else it’s peoples responsibility to not put themselves in danger.
    As for historical sites, there are some that have rails and others that have just signs near the referred place.

    • João Martins says:

      There are indeed some historical places which need fences and protections, but usually they are there because accidents can happen and the one bold enough to go there might need some help.

      However, if any accident happens, you will the only one liable for your own choices, and that is the main difference between mentalities.

      Now, when you buy a coffee at MacDonald’s it comes with a warning “Caution: Hot”.
      Well, of course it is hot, if it came cold I’d be asking for a hot one.

  26. blackwatertown says:

    Common sense hooray – as long as it’s not abused by developers to let communities fall into rack and ruin.

  27. Inge says:

    I’v read through all of the comments above and interestingly it’s more or less the same arguements for traffic-management. Most people want strict divides between pedestrians and bikers, cars, trams,.. especially if there are kids involved.
    Unfortanutely the problem is the more we do this, objectively the more dangerous it becomes, yet subjectively we feel safer. And that is the problem.. the more safe we feel, the less attention we pay and thus accidents happen. Whereas when it’s complex (lots of different traffics or an ‘unsafe’ wall) everyone pays more attention and takes care and hence less accidents. In Europe a lot of countries have done these kind of experiments in traffic and while most people won’t believe it (because it’s against their instinctive reaction) it’s proven over and over, keep it complex to keep it safe.

    Funny how that is exactly what happens here.

  28. der nikolaus says:

    That’s an amazing post. Thanks a lot

  29. shenanitims says:

    I wonder how much of this is due to universal health care, along, obviously, with Portugal’s own legal system? I’m not trying to say greed isn’t a huge part of the US’ litigious nature, but here you need a lawsuit to pay off any hospital bills. There, you’d get a cast and have to spend the rest of your time embarrassed about what a klutz you are. Here, you’d have the same embarrassment, coupled with the salt in the wound to the tune of $10,000.

  30. Kugai says:

    I don’t say that there shouldn’t be a warning sign or some such to let people know that going ‘There’ is dangerous, and I would agree that there are undoubtedly some places and locations that SHOULD be fenced or railed off, but from then on, common sense should take over.

    If someone is stupid enough to place themselves into a dangerous position/situation despite the clear warnings, then whose fault is it really?

  31. Songbird says:

    I don’t know if it is me getting older or what but I find myself getting more and more cautious, and thinking exactly like you did at that castle in Portugal. Uk is almost as bad or good, whichever side of the fence you are standing on this one with health and safety…

  32. davbi says:

    I move around too much to know the proper origins of this anecdote but I have heard this said.

    “You know what? You should deal with this the good ol’ American way: sue the bastards for all they’re worth!”

  33. hearttypat says:

    really, i agree totally. Fences spoil the beauty of a place. Why spoil a place just because one silly tourist fell off a cliff/castle walls while trying to take a picture? Here in SIngapore we are being americanised too. Even with the little natural beauty we have, they are ‘protected’ with ugly fenses. Imagine the cliffs of Ireland, for example, being rounded up with them.

  34. David Marshall says:

    Maybe it’s a question of what sort of freedom Americans want–they want to be protected from falling off walls then loudly clamor for the freedom to operate their corporations free from any regulation. They are fine with being protected themselves but want no one to restrict their free exercise of greed, disregard for the environment, and exploitation of common resources.

    The trouble is that, in this country at least, giving everyone the choice to make his or her own decision also opens the way to selfishness and lack of concern for others.

    Are those fences in Rhode Island constructed out of concern for others? I doubt it, but that might be a better motive than property owners’ building them to protect themselves from the litigiousness of others.

  35. bigbusdriver says:

    Heading to Portugal for the third time this week and looking at blogs for places to visit whilst there.
    I found your blog by chance and a very interesting blog it is. In my mind people, should be able to go where they like and be careful; health and safety has spoilt so much of the natural beauty in this world. The unfortunate other side of this is some people are not lucky enough to have their five sences which means fenced or signed areas are needed. I’m of the opinion leave places as they were born unless fatality is so obvious that you have to do something to stop it.

  36. om ullah says:


  37. It is amazing how thin, sometimes, is the line between stupidity and sensibleness.

    Thank you for restating the obvious!


  38. Kathy says:

    I, too, found this post by chance, and I’m glad I did. It’s well-written and very thought-provoking.

    Here is another way to look at the issue you raise, though, of the relationship between freedom and choice. Without some kind of wall, or fence, or guard rail on a walk like the ones you pictured, alongside a sheer cliff (especially the second pic), where falling means certain death, you really don’t have a meaningful choice if you have any physical limitations that might affect your balance, or if you fear heights, whatever. It’s fine to say, as your wife-to-be said, that you have the choice to walk there or not, and if you fear it might not be safe, you should not be up there. But what that means in practice is that only the most physically fit, physically self-confident, sure-footed people can experience that extraordinary beauty.

    I don’t think that this cultural difference speaks to differing concepts of freedom so much as it does the perhaps peculiarly American belief in equality — equal access. It’s not about freedom to choice per se. It’s about having what you need to make that choice truly meaningful. Why should human mountain goats be the only people who can walk alongside that gorgeous cliff in the last photo?

    • Inge says:

      Interesting. But why should there be equal access? The freedom of one ends where the freedom of others start. Here you destroy the view of people in order for others to make it possible to get an equally obstructed view. The freedom of choice is paramount. You should get a choice to see unobstructed views and obstructed views. Both.. equally. So yes, there should be different places and possibilities for everyone to get their thing.

      (oh and in case you’re wondering. I was once paralyzed in one leg so i do know a bit about being not steady on the feeth.)

  39. njaiswal says:

    Beautiful pictures. And yes,it IS a pity when beautiful places are deemed out of bounds or cordoned off just because a few people refuse to take responsibility for their own actions! The dangers of the other path, however, are also rampant in many countries. Whole sites of construction collapse in the midst of a busy city in India, and barely anything is done. The challenge lies in deciding where to draw the line!

    Again, great post and beautiful photography!

  40. There should be a sign showing “Enter at your own risk.”, there won’t be too much to debate.

    – Climbing a mountain.
    – Any investments.
    …any other imaginable actions that have risks.

    …and the USA is leading many things worldwide but not the standard of the world.

    “Just Married” (2003)is a funny film but it’s illustrating this point so precisely that everyone can understand… and as it is especially about the USA and Europe.

  41. I love this blog so much… Such great posts all the time!

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