Urbanization significantly affects both the drainage network structure and the storage capacity of river channels in lowland plain river networks. The Yangtze River Delta region has experienced a rapid and profound urbanization of any region worldwide in the past 30 years. The southeast Yinfeng plain in the Yangtze River Delta region was used as the study area to assess changes in the river network structure from 1990 to 2010, using river feature parameter analyses and GIS spatial analysis. The elastic method was adopted to analyse river network pattern response to both urbanization and climate change, and the rates at which these factors contributed to changes in the river network pattern were investigated. Changes in the storage capacity and flood control capacity of the channel network over the past 21 years were then analysed. The results indicated that: (1) the number of river networks, and the complexity of the river network spatial structures were reduced, the drainage density decreased by 20%, the water surface ratio by 36%, the river area–length ratio by nearly 18% and the fractal dimension of the river networks by 4.5%; (2) the river network changes were due more to human activities than to climate change in this study period. Limited changes occurred in the structure of the river system, as indicated by an urbanization variability rate of less than 20% and precipitation variability range of −5% to −15%, although the stream structure gradually decreased with increasing urbanization variability; and (3) the storage capacity of the main river network decreased earlier (1990–2003) and was restored later (2003–2010) because of dredging and widening activities. In addition, the number of lower-order rivers decreased, which resulted in significant decreases in the storage and flood control capacities of the river networks. Copyright © 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.