Listen to that nervous feeling

In the U.S, there is a bright line separating public spaces from private spaces. In Europe, the American notion of private and public spaces blur. I had two moments of clarity on these differences while visiting Spain; one while using a public bathroom, and another jumping off a pier.

In a coastal town in Spain, I found a peculiar public restroom: It is a wall on the side of a boardwalk, with a urinary attached to it. There is a semi-circle, metallic mesh surrounding the wall providing some cover for the bathroom user. This mesh is detached by about half a meter from the wall. The mesh makes it very easy to see it if someone is in there, looking down doing the deed. But playing peek-a-book is not the goal of the mesh; Assuming people are decent, this semi-transparency keeps people from walking in inadvertently. The space separating the mesh from the wall is more risqué; its main purpose is to allow people to come in and out of the urinary, but since people pee onto the wall, men’s privates are fairly exposed to those strolling on the boardwalk and passing next to the bathroom.

This contraption presented me with a new type of public bathroom; it is public in that it is free and available to all, but also public in that anyone who wants to see you or jump you while you pee, can do so with ease. Of course, no one peeks, and no one jumps. Still, for us tourists and first timers, using this public bathroom is a thrill and an adventure.

Coming from the U.S, I had to triple check I was using the public bathroom right, checking I was not missing a door or some instructions or regulation. But that’s not how public spaces work in Europe.

In contrast, most public spaces in the U.S come with a manual: what you can and cannot do, who can be where, and at what times.


Here are the instructions for the Sue Bierman Park Playground in San Francisco:


For the enjoyment of all visitors, please obey the following regulations:

  1. Be courteous and respectful of others
  2. Adults must be accompanied by a child
  3. No dogs
  4. Smoking prohibited
  5. Feeding of birds or animals prohibited
  6. No alcohol or glass containers
  7. No Riding of skateboards, scooters, bikes, or rollerblades
  8. Littering prohibited


The feeling it conveys is that this place is not yours and most people are not to be trusted here. Not a great vibe for a public park.

At the end of that spanish beach boardwalk there is a large pier built out of concrete, resting in a bed of rocks. The pier stretches far into the sea, and as it extends, the distance down to the water grows to around 5 meters, maybe more.

We asked our family, who visit this beach town every summer, where were the fences for the pier. The questions took them by surprise. We talked about the risks of falling by the side on a low tide and getting injured or worse, and they talked about individual responsibility and common sense using the pier. Then we talked about legal liability for the city and they inquired about that rare phenomenon, wondering how one could sue something like a city, and why would any want to do it. We explain the financial rewards that could come from such exercise, and some of them thought this presented an interesting new business opportunity in the old continent, and in the moment we could see in their eyes the sparkle of late stage capitalism (just kidding). We couldn’t quite explain the suing of a city issue, so we trailed off talking about how the metric “lawyers per capita” is inversely correlated with GDP growth everywhere with one exception, the U.S, where we have the highest lawyer per capita ratio and hence many lawsuits….

Anyways, the next day my brother in law and I went back to the pier, and did a little jump. It was fun.

On the subject of jumping into bodies of water: have you seen those pictures of people jumping off cliffs on Europe’s beaches? So Fun! Guess what: the U.S has such cliffs and beaches. The difference is that in Europe those cliffs are not fenced. In the U.S we have fences and fines for those who jump and warning signs for all.

I looked online for American warning signs for cliffs. My favorite one, which the internet shows at various spot, reads:


Don’t jump off the cliff.


This phrase says a lot about our approach to public spaces, and our fearful retreat into safety and privacy.

Part of the difference is simple to see: Some of the uses Europeans give to their public spaces are surprising to us because many of these activities are reserved to private spaces in the U.S. In The U.S, public spaces are a place of strangers, and so we give each other tons of limitations and instructions, to make sure those borrowing these places make good use of it.

But that’s just part of it. There is something more beyond ownership and a sense of belonging. Today the Queen of England died and I read a beautiful tweet that celebrated the cathedral (a public space) where her body would rest, referring to it as “one of the jewels of our inheritance”. The idea of public spaces as an inheritance is very touching, and describes I think with brevity and depth what public spaces mean in Europe.

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