This paper aims to increase understanding of partnership-based urban residential development as a system by taking the first steps towards a hypothesis pointing to that direction. Design and methodology The data used was collected from two in-depth residential development case studies in Helsinki region, Finland. The general analytic strategy of this study was continuous coding of the data throughout the research phase and also afterwards. As a framework in urban residential development this study used Public-Private-People Partnership (4P), which connects all the relevant parties of urban residential development process. Findings It is suggested that a system is a relevant construct with which partnership-based urban residential development processes can be examined. Research limitations As the results are based on just two cases under Finnish development legislation and their framework, only analytical generalisations can be made. Practical implications Seeing urban residential development process as a system can help to communicate urban development process with other kinds of complexity, such as complexity found in sustainability, and to enhance discussion on systems thinking and complex systems in urban residential development. Originality/value So far urban planning and commercial development have been suggested to be systems. This paper contributes to non-linear approach to urban residential development process, which is in contrast with more traditional event-sequence models of development.