The Three Modern Estates

One of the verities of the New Urbanism is that we have prominent civic buildings and background private buildings. What about government, though?

An age-old idea of different “estates” or interest-groups making up society is still relevant. Today, we have the Private, the Cultural, and the Governmental—although the latter is nearly invisible on the ground. 

Copyright Leon Krier, courtesy Howard BlacksonLeon Krier: Res Publica, Res Privata, and Res Civitas

Copyright Leon Krier, courtesy Howard BlacksonLeon Krier: Res Publica, Res Privata, and Res Civitas

One of the most important contributions that Leon Krier made to urbanism has been to differentiate the idea of the public and economic spheres in urbanism.

The Res Publica is for public affairs, the Res Economica is for private, especially commercial affairs, and Res Civitas is for civic affairs, or more accurately, citizens’ affairs. The sum of the Res Publica and the Res Economica is the domain of citizenship.

Jane Jacobs: Guardian and Commerce Syndromes

In the meantime, as Jane Jacobssaid, private business and government follow two separate and mutually exclusive moral codes—the Guardian Syndrome and the Commerce Syndrome. She prescribed a separation between business and government akin to that between government and religion. The two moral codes are completely incompatible, and their combination is, according to Jane Jacobs, a “moral monster.” 

Thomas Jefferson: A Wall of Separation of Church and State

It is noteworthy that the “wall” separating church and state originated with renegade churches, and makes its way into a famous letter that Thomas Jefferson sent to a church. It is at least as much a way of protecting good government as it is of protecting religion.   

The Trifunctional Model

Together, the above suggest a trifunctional model of society: the three “estates.” 

After much electronic conversation, I will call these the Economic, Cultural, and Governmental Estates. They have different relationships to the land.

The Land

Lincoln, England, is a picture of the three Estates. The Economic Estate comes right down through the middle on Bailgate, between the Cathedral and the Castle, which are elements of the Cultural Estate. The Castle is also an element of the Governmental Estate, since it still houses the Crown Court.

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The Economic Estate centers on what Chip Kaufman and Paul Murrain call the “movement economy,” (pdf) and what Douglas Duany calls the “commercial armature,” or “armature.” It is the network of important through-routes. “Main Street” will be on the movement economy, for instance. It has a center—the best-traveled routes—and it feathers back to quiet streets with houses on lots. Thus, the center of the Economic Estate is on the movement economy.

The Cultural Estate, as in Lincoln, occupies “precincts,” for want of a better word. These are delimited lands that are generally bigger than a typical lot and have their own rules. They generally (but not always) have more unbuilt space. Douglas Duany thus calls these lands the “landscape armature.” Although these precincts are not necessarily sacred, their central mission is usually a function of altruism, religion, natural beauty, or some form of renewal. Perhaps for this reason, the Governmental Estate often grants land to these missions, or at least exempts the precincts from taxation.

The Governmental Estate is nearly invisible under peaceful conditions, and jurisdictions such as public utilities’ service areas are almost never marked. Yet, jurisdictions are central to our lives. We pay taxes, fees, assessments, and utility bills, and we depend on their services and protection. Lincoln Castle was a Norman stronghold, with its own Governmental jurisdiction. 


Perhaps, then, we can say the following:

The Economic Estate occupies most of the land, and centers on the movement economy. It is composed of ordinary lots and most streets and roads. 

The Cultural Estate occupies far less, but often more prominent land. It deploys itself against the movement economy according to its mission. It is composed of precincts, each with its own mission and rules.

The Governmental Estate generally oversees the land rather than occupies it. It deploys jurisdictions across all scales, and these probably should be congruent with the underlying regional, local, and even fine-grained urban patterns of the other two Estates.

Postscript: Articulation and Congruence of the Estates

The three Estates occupy land in their own ways. The Economic is the majority of urban land by area, as it comprises most ordinary lots. It is at its most intense on the movement economy, but it feathers back to quiet lots. Those lots still have economic value and even some limited productive value (e.g. Home offices). This economic realm is subject to the governmental through regulation, but supports it through taxation—and that has an impact on services. It is generally planned almost as a continuous carpet, and its block patterns are usually shaped so as to draw people to the most prominent locations on the movement economy.

The Waters: Copyright Steve Mouzon

The Waters: Copyright Steve Mouzon

Within the New Urbanism, care is generally taken to set aside prominent precincts for cultural use. Depending on their missions, the precincts of the Cultural Estate deploy themselves in prominent well-trafficked areas or off in quiet corners. Both Trinity Church at the end of Wall Street and parks in riparian habitats are typical of the Cultural Estate. In general, the more compact precincts with more public purposes gravitate toward the movement economy, while many gravitate away from it. Even when they are pulled away, they are still often prominent in a formal sense, dominating by height and visibility. 

The Governmental Estate may have the most interesting deployment. Of course, local governmental units nest inside of state and national ones. Experience suggests government should, wherever possible, be congruent with the physical form of the urbanism and urban nodes such as “downtowns.” When it splits the urbanism unnaturally, problems occur. Attorneys Dan Slone and Doris Goldstein have pointed out that private community associations should be shaped so that they are either mainly-commercial or mainly-residential, as the two mix poorly. (Note, Jane Jacobs would call associations’ private governments “moral monsters” in any case.) Moreover, when a major regional node is cut by a state line, there is often a disparity: East St. Louis, Covington Kentucky (across from Cincinnati), and Camden New Jersey (across from Philadelphia). The Charter of the New Urbanism suggests, at point #9 that taxes should be shared to mitigate disparities. In each of these cases, a mismatch between the urbanism and the Governmental Estate’s jurisdictions causes friction.