As urban areas continue to grow, understanding how species respond and adapt to urban habitats is becoming increasingly important. Knowledge of the mechanisms behind observed phenotypic changes of urban-dwelling animals will enable us to better evaluate the impact of urbanization on current and future generations of wildlife and predict how animals respond to novel environments. Recently, urban ecology has emerged not only as a means of understanding organismal adaptation but also as a framework for exploring mechanisms mediating evolutionary phenomena. Here, we have identified four important research topics that will advance the field of urban ecology and shed light on the proximate and ultimate causes of the phenotypic differences commonly seen among species and populations that vary in their responses to urbanization. First, we address the ecological and socio-economic factors that characterize cities, how they might interact with each other, and how they affect urban species. Second, we ask which are the proximate mechanisms underlying the emergence over time of novel traits in urban organisms, focusing on developmental effects. Third, we emphasize the importance of understanding the ultimate causations that link phenotypic shifts to function. This question highlights the need to quantify the strength and direction of selection that urban individuals are exposed to, and whether the phenotypic shifts associated with life in the city are adaptive. Lastly, we stress the need to translate how individual-level responses scale up to population dynamics. Understanding the mechanistic underpinnings of variation among populations and species in their responses to urbanization will unravel species resilience to environmental perturbation, which will facilitate predictive models for sustainability and development of green cities that maintain or even increase urban biodiversity and wildlife health and wellbeing.