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.
(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.)