Urban residential expansion increasingly drives land use, land cover and ecological changes worldwide, yet social science theories explaining such change remain under-developed. Existing theories often focus on processes occurring at one scale, while ignoring other scales. Emerging evidence from four linked U.S. research sites suggests it is essential to examine processes at multiple scales simultaneously when explaining the evolution of urban residential landscapes. Additionally, focusing on urbanization dynamics across multiple sites with a shared research design may yield fruitful comparative insights. The following processes and social-hierarchical scales significantly influence the spatial configurations of residential landscapes: household-level characteristics and environmental attitudes; formal and informal institutions at the neighborhood scale; and municipal-scale land-use governance. While adopting a multi-scale and multi-site approach produces research challenges, doing so is critical to advancing understanding of coupled socio-ecological systems and associated vulnerabilities in a dynamic and environmentally important setting: residential landscapes.