Background: Current literature about climate change adaptation provides a broad range of factors influencing the adaptive capacity. Furthermore, a frequent tenor is that “scale matters”. However, the effects of institutional interplay across governance levels on adaptive capacity and the effects of the interaction of institutions with other variables such as technology and information remain largely subject of debate. Therefore synthesizing the diverse findings of empirical studies in a methodologically coherent and integrative manner may provide theoretical foundations for answers on how to organize enhanced adaptive capacity within and across governance levels. Method: 1\. Against this background we develop a comprehensive multi-tier framework of variables that systematically influence adaptive capacity. This is done by adopting the conceptual groundwork of the Institutional Analysis and Development framework (Ostrom 1990; Ostrom/Gardner/Walker 1994; Ostrom 2005) and with special focus on cross-level variable interactions. 2\. We apply this framework of variables to the case of urban areas and conduct a model-centered meta-analysis of empirical studies in order to identify patterns in which urban adaptive capacity is determined by institutional interplay and variable interactions within and across governance levels. Results: The main results are: 1\. The study provides a comprehensive and coherent multi-tier framework of variables determining adaptive capacity. 2\. The analysis of urban adaptive capacity indicates that the level of urban adaptive capacity is attributable to the congruence of multiple variables. 3\. Specific patterns of conjoint causation are identified for financial, informational, and institutional multi-level-interactions of determinants of urban adaptive capacity. Conclusions: This multi-tier framework seems to be very promising for a better understanding of adaptive capacity and thereby for influencing vulnerability to climate change. It provides a meaningful background for future studies and may foster cumulative research on adaptive capacity. Moreover, it offers a tool for further investigations of level- and cross-level-dynamics.