1. Macroinvertebrate community composition was assessed in small streams of the Melbourne region to test the effects of (a) urban density (catchment imperviousness 0–51%) and (b) stormwater drainage intensity (comparing the intensively drained metropolitan area with urban areas of the hinterland, which had open drains and some localized stormwater drainage).
2. Hinterland communities separated into two groups of sites correlating strongly with patterns of electrical conductivity (EC), basalt geology and annual rainfall. Community composition varied little in the high-EC, western group (imperviousness 0.2–1.2%), but in the eastern group it was strongly correlated with catchment imperviousness (0–12%), with lower taxon richness in more impervious catchments.
3. Metropolitan communities (imperviousness 1–51%) were all severely degraded, with high abundances of a few tolerant taxa. Community composition was poorly correlated with patterns of geology, rainfall or imperviousness. Differences between metropolitan and hinterland communities were well explained by patterns of biochemical oxygen demand and electrical conductivity, which were postulated to indicate the more efficient transport of pollutants to receiving streams by the metropolitan stormwater drainage system.
4. Degradation of macroinvertebrate community composition was well explained by urban density but intensive urban drainage increased degradation severely at even low urban densities. Quantification of relationships between imperviousness, drainage intensity and stream degradation can better inform the assessment, conservation and restoration of urban streams.