The study of trade-offs among major life history components (age at maturity, lifespan and reproduction) allowed the development of a quantitative framework to understand how environmental variation shapes patterns of biodiversity among and within species. Because every environment is inherently spatially structured, and in most cases temporally variable, individuals need to move within and among habitats to maximize fitness. Dispersal is often assumed to be tightly integrated into life histories through genetic correlations with other vital traits. This assumption is particularly strong within the context of a fast-slow continuum of life-history variation. Such a framework is to date used to explain many aspects of population and community dynamics. Evidence for a consistent and context-independent integration of dispersal in life histories is, however, weak. We therefore advocate the explicit integration of dispersal into life history theory as a principal axis of variation influencing fitness, that is free to evolve, independently of other life history traits. We synthesize theoretical and empirical evidence on the central role of dispersal and its evolutionary dynamics on the spatial distribution of ecological strategies and its impact on population spread, invasions and coexistence. By applying an optimality framework we show that the inclusion of dispersal as an independent dimension of life histories might substantially change our view on evolutionary trajectories in spatially structured environments. Because changes in the spatial configuration of habitats affect the costs of movement and dispersal, adaptations to reduce these costs will increase phenotypic divergence among and within populations. We outline how this phenotypic heterogeneity is anticipated to further impact population and community dynamics.