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Water Sensitive Cambridge sets up first retrofitted roadside rain gardens in city

By: Mike Scialom

Published: 17:25, 04 April 2024

Updated: 08:40, 05 April 2024

Water Sensitive Cambridge hosted a community planting event for Cambridge’s first retrofitted roadside rain gardens last week.

The pilot for the city’s rain gardens programme has turned three green verges at Fallowfield into vibrant mini-gardens by cutting two slots into the kerb, allowing rain water to flow in.

The first rain garden in Cambridge is dug in at Fallowfield. Insets: Yair Perry of Water Sensitive Cambridge, and the kerb cut-in                Pictures: Keith Heppell

The runoff infiltrates and recharges the ground water and allows urban habitats to flourish and, say Water Sensitive Cambridge co-founders Clara Todd and Yair Perry, the model is highly suitable to Cambridge’s current climate model of lots of rain over winter, and drought in the summer.

“This is our long awaited-pilot in turning a green verge into a rain verge,” said Yair of the site near the junction with Fen Road. “Last week we dug out trenches, filled them back up to below the road level, and cut slots in the kerb, so now runoff from the road flows into the gardens instead of down the drains.”

The making of a rain garden, the first in Cambridge, on Fallowfield. Picture: Mike ScialomMike Scialom

More than a dozen volunteers showed up near the home of Water Sensitive Cambridge co-founder Meg Clarke, and helped dig plants in along with Meg and James Murray-White, the fourth co-founder of the community interest company founded last year.

The organisation has been developing its ethos at Accelerate Cambridge, the Cambridge Judge Business School start-up programme.


“It’s been a fantastic experience, being part of Accelerate Cambridge,” says Clara. “We have an ongoing relationship with Cambridge Judge Business School that includes regular coaching – it’s an interesting experience. They recognise we’ve got a unique offering and it’s helping us to develop other strands to our business but this – community development and treating water differently – is our soul.

Residents fom around Fallowfield during a community planting event in the three rain gardens installed last week by cutting gaps in the kerb edge, Yair Perry who created the idea. Picture: Keith Heppell

“The county council has been very supportive of rain gardens too. There’s a recognition that there are serious problems with the way we’ve been treating rain water – we can’t just let it drain off into the rivers, it needs to go into the ground. It’s the most important transition we can make at this point.”

Water Sensitive Cambridge hired a contractor to cut into the kerbside stone: there’s six such cuts on the three rain gardens in the Fallowfield pilot.

“With rain gardens you have to think ‘what happens to the water next?’” says Clara at the site on Good Friday. “We want to see these rain gardens all over Cambridge – hundreds of them. The pilot is to help us see how much it costs, what’s the simplest solution.

Judge Business School new cohort on the Cambridge Accelerate programme which includes Water Sensitive Cambridge, from left James Murray-White, Clara Todd and Yair Perry. Picture: Keith Heppell

“One of the costs is the cuts into the kerb. The slates [which guide the rain water from the road into the garden] were rescued from a skip. Darwin Nurseries has helped with the plants.

“The funding came from a River Cam CAN grant, which is funded by the National Lottery and is led by Cambridge Past Present & Future. They got the grant for a proposal, our pilot is one part of the proposal, the bid included Abbey People and CoFarm. We’ve been very lucky…”

Meg Clarke is delighted to see the plants being put in.

“We get quite frustrated because this area gets quite flooded in a real downpour,” she says. “The water comes out of this drain like a fountain.

Water Sensitive Cambridge pilot at Fallowfield - digging in

“We’ll keep an eye on the rain gardens and see what needs doing. This is the first one. It’s a prototype and hopefully it will be rolled out to other parts of Cambridge.”


Executive councillor for planning, building control and infrastructure, Katie Thornburrow, said: “I think rain gardens are a great idea, and I can encourage them to be used when schemes come forward in a planning application.

“It is a much harder challenge to get existing roadside space altered to be a rain garden, and I think that Water Sensitive Cambridge have achieved something special. They have worked with residents, the county, ward councillors and the many people who love nature. It’s a great example of what can be achieved, and how this can be achieved too.”

The making of a rain garden, the first in Cambridge, on Fallowfield. Picture: Mike Scialom

Michael Grange, coach at the Accelerate Cambridge programme of the Entrepreneurship Centre at Cambridge Judge Business School, said: “Every venture on the Accelerate Cambridge programme is trying to do something extraordinary and Water Sensitive Cambridge is no exception. The team has made great progress with refining their value proposition, while continuing the valuable community outreach and engagement work they have such a passion for.

“At Cambridge Judge Entrepreneurship Centre, we’re delighted to support a venture delivering tangible benefits for Cambridge and its residents.”


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