In the preface to David Harvey’s Rebel Cities (2012) he states:
‘Lefebvre’s concept of heterotopia (radically different from that of Foucault) delineates liminal social spaces of possibility where “something different” is not only possible, but fundamental for the defining of revolutionary trajectories’.
It may be worth looking at what Lefebvre actually says in a bit more detail. In The Urban Revolution (1970) he outlines the history, the ‘journey’, of urbanisation dialectically. Urban space is not defined in terms of industrial rationality, but as dialectical process of contrasts, oppositions, juxtapositions, tensions: a growing ‘differential reality’, with a transforming potential. He analyses the ‘virtual’ characteristics of the urban, a dialectical process of the possible-impossible’, ‘presence-absence’ – a paradoxical space.
He formally identifies 3 types of space (topoi):
Identical spaces – isotopies (spaces that can be compared, quantified, mapped, spaces of order, rational, contained spaces E.G. blocks of similar houses)
Other places – heterotopies (spaces of difference, ambiguous, both excluded and interwoven E.G. historically caravansaries, fairgrounds on the margins of nascent cities)
Non-places – utopias (spaces of consciousness, imagined spaces E.G. Montreal festival/exhibition space)
It is the last that has transcendent possibilities, ‘an illuminating virtuality already present’ that will absorb and transform the other two topoi. Utopian space is both imagined and real, with the promise of liberation and transcendence. In my reading, there is a relationship between the three topoi, but for Lefebvre it is the spaces of utopia that are truly radical and transformative. As the translator of The Urban Revolution asserts, Lefebvre in the end ‘retains an optimistic Hegelianism’. As Harvey says, very different from Foucault, but not in the way that Harvey suggests.