This study explored the hydrological impacts of urbanization, rainfall pattern and magnitude in a developing catchment. The Stormwater Management Model was parameterized, calibrated and validated in three development phases, which had the same catchment area (12.3 ha) but different land use intensities. The model calibration and validation by using sub-hourly hydro-meteorological data demonstrated a good performance of the model in predicting stormwater runoff in the different development phases. Based on the results, a threshold between minor and major rainfall events was identified and conservatively determined to be about 17.5 mm in depth. Direct runoff for minor storm events has a linear relationship with rainfall; however, events with a rainfall depth greater than the threshold yield a rainfall–runoff regression line with a clearly steeper slope. The difference in urban runoff generation between minor and major rainfall events diminishes with the increase of imperviousness. Urbanization leads to an increase in the production of stormwater runoff, but during infrequent major storms, the runoff contribution from pervious surfaces reduces the runoff changes owing to urbanization. Rainfall pattern exerts an important effect on urban runoff, which is reflected in pervious runoff. With the same magnitude, prolonged rainfall events with unvarying low intensity yield the smallest peak flow and the smallest total runoff, yet rainfall events with high peak intensity produce the largest runoff volume. These results demonstrate the different roles of impervious and pervious surfaces in runoff generation, and how runoff responds to rainstorms in urban catchments depends on hyetograph and event magnitude. Furthermore, the study provides a scientific basis of the design guideline sustainable urban drainage systems, which are still arbitrary in many countries. Copyright © 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.