The pursuit of sustainable development as an adaptive process of learning-by-doing may benefit from using sustainability indicators (Sis). Nevertheless, adaptive governance may demand more from SIs than what these indicators can currently deliver. In response, we identify three conditioning factors for SIs to indeed support processes of adaptive governance in pursuing urban sustainability. These conditions relate to the accessibility and understandability of SIs, their focus on policy performance and trend watching, and finally, whether they are being discussed both within and outside government authorities. We empirically provide further grounding for the relevance of these conditions and identify how they relate to existing practices working with SIs. We targeted six urban practices in four countries (Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and the USA) with advanced experience in sustainable development policies and SIs. These practices confirm the relevance of each condition and show evidence of how they might be operationalized in practice. However, confirmation and evidence are largely implicit and based on isolated examples. Hence, we conclude that there is a lack of explicit recognition and, in its wake, a lack of structured attempts at embedding Sis in urban governance for supporting processes of learning and policy adaptation. (C) 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.