Worldwide, coastal and floodplain wetlands are rapidly urbanizing, making them highly vulnerable to biodiversity loss, biological invasion and climate change. Yet urban wetlands management is an understudied area of global environmental research. Different policy approaches and institutional arrangements in place for urban wetlands governance have to be studied comparatively to obtain a better understanding of the current issues. This paper investigates four urban wetland policy regimes and the application of ecological reference points across four countries. The regimes are discussed within the context of global policy trends, urbanization patterns and environmental change. The analysis illustrates that the four cases deviate substantially in certain characteristics and converge in others. Global trends such as environmental treaties and restructuring of city spaces are common policy drivers for all cases. Conversely, the localized specific problems have yielded specialized policy responses in each case. Declaration of fixed biological reference points for wetlands were not used at any stage of the policy development process. However, the wetland managers formally or informally set up ecosystem-services oriented benchmarks for urban wetland management. Globally-applicable normative policy directives or universal ecological reference points seem bound to fail in urban wetlands governance. However, in designing effective urban wetland policy and institutions at the regional scale, both context-specific and generalized lessons from empirical policy evaluation of multiple case studies need to be jointly considered. Based on the characteristics of the policy regimes analysed in this study, a hypothetical framework for urban wetland policy evaluation is proposed; this has yet to be validated by empirical application to actual cases.