High-resolution data obtained from airborne remote sensing is increasing opportunities for representation of small-scale structural elements (e.g. walls, buildings) in complex floodplain systems using two-dimensional (2D) models of flood inundation. At the same time, 2D inundation models have been developed and shown to provide good predictions of flood inundation extent, with respect to both full solution of the depth-averaged Navier–Stokes equations and simplified diffusion-wave models. However, these models have yet to be applied extensively to urban areas. This paper applies a 2D raster-based diffusion-wave model to determine patterns of fluvial flood inundation in urban areas using high-resolution topographic data and explores the effects of spatial resolution upon estimated inundation extent and flow routing process. Model response shows that even relatively small changes in model resolution have considerable effects on the predicted inundation extent and the timing of flood inundation. Timing sensitivity would be expected, given the relatively poor representation of inertial processes in a diffusion-wave model. Sensitivity to inundation extent is more surprising, but is associated with: (1) the smoothing effect of mesh coarsening upon input topographical data; (2) poorer representation of both cell blockage and surface routing processes as the mesh is coarsened, where the flow routing is especially complex; and (3) the effects of (1) and (2) upon water levels and velocities, which in turn determine which parts of the floodplain the flow can actually travel to. It is shown that the combined effects of wetting and roughness parameters can compensate in part for a coarser mesh resolution. However, the coarser the resolution, the poorer the ability to control the inundation process, as these parameters not only affect the speed, but also the direction of wetting. Thus, high-resolution data will need to be coupled to a more sophisticated representation of the inundation process in order to obtain effective predictions of flood inundation extent. This is explored in a companion paper. Copyright © 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.