Reconstituting the Possible: Lefebvre, Utopia and the Urban Question


  • This article was presented in earlier forms at a session on ‘What is critical urbanism?' at the Annual Conference of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers, in London, and also at Lund University, at Roskilde University, and at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam. I would like to thank Colin MacFarlane, Tom Slater, Guy Baeten, John Pl⊘ger and Christoph Lindner for organizing the events, and the audiences for comments. I would also like to thank three anonymous IJURR referees. The opportunity to discuss Lefebvre and much more with the Right to the City reading group in New York was inspiring for the article's genesis, and I am very grateful to those who enabled that, in particular Neil Smith, whose generosity, warmth and intellectual energy will be so sorely and so widely missed.


What roles can utopia play in contemporary critical urban studies? The concept has often been treated warily, sidelined or dismissed. Recent years, however, have seen a revival of interest, as writers, activists and artists have sought openings to urban worlds that are different and better. By returning to aspects of the urban thought and practice of Henri Lefebvre in the 1960s and early 1970s, this article challenges common understandings of utopia and clarifies some of its potential uses for critical urban studies today. It explores Lefebvre's emphasis on the possible, and in particular the importance he attached to extending and realizing the possible through struggling for what seems impossible. Rather than being a free-floating or endlessly open project, however, this engagement with the ‘possible-impossible' emerged in critical dialogue with other currents of utopian urbanism, including prospective thought then influential in France. It was also rooted in long- standing concerns with the critique of everyday life and with experimentation through projects with urbanists, architects and others. By attending to these often neglected aspects of Lefebvre's utopianism, a series of provocations emerge for addressing the urban question in ways that take seriously not only what urbanization processes and urban life are but also what they could become and how they might be constituted differently.