Recent rapid urbanization in developing countries presents challenges for sustainable environmental planning and peri-urban cropland management. An improved understanding of the timing and pattern of urbanization is needed to determine how to better plan urbanization for the near future. Here, we describe the spatio-temporal patterns of urbanization and related land-use/land-cover (LULC) changes in the Tarai region of Nepal, as well as discuss the factors underlying its rapid urban expansion. Analyses are based on regional time-series Landsat 5, 7 and 8 image classifications for six years between 1989 and 2016, representing the first long-term observations of their kind for Nepal. During this 27-year period, gains in urban cover and losses of cultivated lands occurred widely. Urban cover occupied 221.1 km2
in 1989 and increased 320% by 2016 to a total 930.22 km2
. Cultivated land was the primary source of new urban cover. Of the new urban cover added since 1989, 93% was formerly cultivated. Urban expansion occurred at moderately exponential rates over consecutive observation periods, with nearly half of all urban expansion occurring during 2006–2011 (305 km2
). The annual rate of urban growth during 1989–1996 averaged 3.3% but reached as high as 8.09% and 12.61% during 1996–2001 and 2011–2016, respectively. At the district level, the rate of urban growth and, by extension, agricultural loss, were weakly related to total population growth. Variability in this relationship suggests that concerted urban-growth management may reduce losses of agricultural lands relative to historic trends despite further population growth and urbanization. Urbanization and LULC change in the Tarai region are attributable to significant inter-regional migration in a context of poor urban planning and lax policies controlling the conversion and fragmentation of peri-urban cultivated lands. Urban expansion and farmland loss are expected to continue in the future.
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