The theory of alternate stable states provides an explanation for rapid ecosystem degradation, yielding important implications for ecosystem conservation and restoration. However, utilizing this theory to initiate transitions from degraded to desired ecosystem states remains a significant challenge. Applications of the alternative stable states framework may currently be impeded by a mismatch between local‐scale driving processes and landscape‐scale emergent system transitions. We show how nucleation theory provides an elegant bridge between local‐scale positive feedback mechanisms and landscape‐scale transitions between alternate stable ecosystem states. Geometrical principles can be used to derive a critical patch radius: a spatially explicit, local description of an unstable equilibrium point. This insight can be used to derive an optimal patch size that minimizes the cost of restoration, and to provide a framework to measure the resilience of desired ecosystem states to the synergistic effects of disturbance and environmental change.