Urbanization continues to be a transformative process globally, affecting ecosystem integrity and the health and well being of people around the world. Although cities tend to be centers for both the production and consumption of goods and services that degrade natural environments, there is also evidence that urban ecosystems can play a positive role in sustainability efforts. Despite the fact that most of the urbanization is now occurring in the developing countries of the Global South, much of what we know about urban ecosystems has been developed from studying cities in the United States and across Europe. We propose a conceptual framework to broaden the development of urban ecological research and its application to sustainability. Our framework describes four key contemporary urban features that should be accounted for in any attempt to build a unified theory of cities that contributes to urban sustainability efforts. We evaluated a range of examples from cities around the world, highlighting how urban areas are complex, connected, diffuse and diverse and what these interconnected features mean for the study of urban ecosystems and sustainability.