Here, we set target values to measure the ecological improvement of streams, based on invertebrate communities, riparian vegetation, instream habitat conditions and water chemistry. The study area is a large tropical catchment (Rio das Velhas, Minas Gerais, Brazil) affected by pastures, mining areas and a large urbanized area but also includes natural protected areas. Two stream types were found in the catchment, based on stream size, elevation, climate and geology with significantly different macroinvertebrate communities. In spite of a marked wet/dry seasons' climatic pattern, that does not result in the segregation of communities. Four classes of global degradation (IV—bad to I—good condition) were defined based on the available abiotic information, corresponding to a gradient in structure and biotic metrics of macroinvertebrate communities, matching the current knowledge on taxa sensitivity to pollution and general disturbance. Class I corresponds to target conditions to be achieved under restoration programmes. Using this approach, we were able to detect an improvement of abiotic conditions in four urban streams that benefited from enhancement measures in 2007–2008. However, invertebrate communities improved clearly in only one site (biotic metrics and community structure). Our study highlighted that good water quality alone is not enough and that only the combined effect of water quality, riparian vegetation and instream habitat condition enhancement resulted in the improvement of invertebrate communities. An important limiting factor for macroinvertebrate communities' recovery may be the distance to source populations. We concluded that the combined use of biological and abiotic target values for measuring the recovery of streams is needed to fully achieve an ecological restoration. This approach can also be valuable in the regular monitoring of streams to assess stream degradation. Target values based on other biological elements, such as fishes and algae, and functional processes could also contribute to define more global and realistic goals. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.