In recent years, cities have been portrayed as important loci for transformations of large-scale systems. This paper contributes to scholarship on urban transitions by exploring why the boundaries, functions and challenges of large-scale systems typically are framed differently at the urban level of governance than at more aggregated levels of governance. Empirically, we examine the wastewater system in Denmark by contrasting framings at the urban and national levels over the last 20 years and the transition dynamics that emerged as a consequence of their juxtaposition. The findings illustrate that urban governance of the wastewater system was influenced by a particular concern with developing attractive and competitive urban spaces. The wastewater system emerged as a ‘place-bound’ and even ‘place-making’ governance concern; as such, the boundaries and functions of the system were subject to continuous redefinition at the city level. This urban framing conflicted with the national-level, efficiency-oriented framing of the wastewater system as homogenous, without regard to place-specific differences. The research findings suggest that a distinct characteristic of urban-level governance is concern for place-specific development; this concern can be transformative because it leads to ongoing reinterpretation of traditional boundaries and dependencies between large-scale systems and local contexts.