This article explores economy‐environment relations in urban areas through a focus upon the reorientation of development in the Boston city‐region in Massachusetts around a vision of smart growth. The article draws upon the evolving tradition of critical economy‐environment research from a broadly regulationist perspective. However, to date research has tended to mask the politics and mediations of the development agenda by actors locked in struggle to shape their social, economic and environmental landscapes. It is argued that reducing institutions to their stylized forms ignores the real politics associated with institutional formation and outcome. A more fruitful approach, we suggest, is to draw upon recent work on institutions and institutional change. In particular the article utilizes a decentered institutional analysis put forth by political scientists Mark Bevir and Rod Rhodes and investigates empirical data from secondary sources and interviews in the Boston city‐region with reference to Bevir and Rhodes’ three concepts of dilemmas, traditions and beliefs.