Ecologists studying coastal and estuarine benthic communities have long taken a macroecological view, by relating benthic community patterns to environmental factors across several spatial scales. Although many general ecological patterns have been established, often a significant amount of the spatial and temporal variation in soft-sediment communities within and among systems remains unexplained. Here we propose a framework that may aid in unraveling the complex influence of environmental factors associated with the different components of coastal systems (i.e. the terrestrial and benthic landscapes, and the hydrological seascape) on benthic communities, and use this information to assess the role played by benthos in coastal ecosystems. A primary component of the approach is the recognition of system modules (e.g. marshes, dendritic systems, tidal rivers, enclosed basins, open bays, lagoons). The modules may differentially interact with key forcing functions (e.g. temperature, salinity, currents) that influence system processes and in turn benthic responses and functions. Modules may also constrain benthic characteristics and related processes within certain ecological boundaries and help explain their overall spatio-temporal variation. We present an example of how benthic community characteristics are related to the modular structure of 14 coastal seas and estuaries, and show that benthic functional group composition is significantly related to the modular structure of these systems. We also propose a framework for exploring the role of benthic communities in coastal systems using this modular approach and offer predictions of how benthic communities may vary depending on the modular composition and characteristics of a coastal system. ?? 2006 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.