Within urban design there is increasing interest in the close relationship between social, economic and political processes and the production of public spaces. This relationship, however, often remains abstract and is rarely illustrated in empirical studies. This paper introduces an institutionalist understanding to the production of public spaces, whereby emphasis is placed on the analysis of structuring forces and actors as a way to apprehend the complexity of the social processes guiding and influencing the planning, design and management of public spaces. The institutionalist understanding is illustrated in the case study of an urban renewal project in Barcelona. The results of the case study show the contrasts and tensions between the structuring forces and the different actors operating in the project, how structuring forces favoured the interest and claims of some actors over those of others, and the potential risks and challenges that this has for the use and value of the public spaces produced by the project. © 2013 Copyright Taylor and Francis Group, LLC.