Urban ecology is a rapidly developing scientific discipline with great relevance to sustainable city design and management. Though several frameworks have been proposed in the last 10 years, urban ecology, as yet, has no complete, mature theory. There are, however, general principles emerging that may facilitate the development of such a theory. In the meantime, these principles can serve as useful guides for ecological landscape design and maintenance. This paper aims to use the principles to conceptually frame a series of papers to follow in this special issue. The main ecological principles concerning cities are that: 1) Cities are ecosystems; 2) Cities are spatially heterogeneous; 3) Cities are dynamic; 4) Human and natural processes interact in cities; and 5) Ecological processes are still at work and are important in cities. The first three principles address the structure of cities and the change in structure through time. The remaining two principles focus on ecological processes in cities. We briefly summarize each of these principles and their roots in the ecological and design fields. Each principle points to ecological functions that can be translated into ecosystem services. Application of these principles to ecological landscape design and maintenance is discussed.