‘We need to make the shift’: Water Sensitive Cambridge joins Accelerate Cambridge programme’s new cohort
Water Sensitive Cambridge, a community interest company (CIC), has joined the Accelerate Cambridge programme at Cambridge Judge Business School.
The CIC was incorporated in May by founders Clara Todd, James Murray-White, Yair Perry and Meg Clarke. Its mission is “to get rain back into the ground close to where it falls” by retrofitting rain gardens and other sustainable drainage features beside roads “using existing green spaces or creating new ones”.
The team is looking forward to making progress at the internationally-renowned business school’s much-respected programme.
“We’re very interested to be taking part in that we’re an ecology-first, regenerative environmental-based organisation, so we’re keen to find out how do these cultures mix?” said Clara, chair of Water Sensitive Cambridge.
“I’m very curious,” adds James, the COO. “Getting into bed with the university might seem odd but we’re keen to learn and we’ve got to work with the dominant systems as they change and shift and transition.
“I’m fascinated about how to bring about cultural change. We can make the story shift and we know we need to – these are the messages of the global shift that is taking place.
“The key thing for us is we’re a mixture of real locals and an alumnus bringing gifts.”
Yair adds cheerily: “Three locals and a migrant.” Yair, who hails from Israel, has taken on the CTO role at Water Sensitive Cambridge and it is his engineering nous that underpins the organisation’s approach. Yair acquired an MPhil in engineering for sustainable development at the University of Cambridge, and followed that with a three-year stint as head of product at conflict-facing market researcher Rural Senses.
“I look at run-off as a resource,” he says. “At the moment the rain comes down on the road, goes into the gutters; it mixes with the sewage and goes out through overflow pipes, which take it to the river. That’s one of the reasons sewage is pumped into the rivers. The treatment centres are being overwhelmed and, with climate change, we’re looking at cycles of harder rains with longer periods of drought between them, and we need to adjust our systems to cope with that.
“Here in Cambridge we had a very dry May and June, with the yellow grass again – and then the wettest July ever. The solution is to help the rain go into the ground and not go off into the drains, and this also helps with dry periods.”
Yair demonstrates solutions already in use using two books – Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands & Beyond by Brad Lancaster, and Rain Gardens by Nigel Dunnett and Andy Clayden. These award-winning titles are resources to help you create abundant and productive homes, landscapes, and communities fed by the rain.
Yair adds that becoming a water-sensitive city has already been achieved in, for instance, Tel Aviv which, like Cambridge, has a lot of surfaces – concrete, tarmac, pavements, plastic grass... Rainwater was largely wasted, until solutions were devised.
“We need to allow more free spaces in the city,” he says. “We shouldn’t be afraid of building for puddles. All you need to do to get started is build a little depression and fill it with mulch and water-tolerant plants.”
“Plus possibly planting for pollinators,” notes Meg, who has opted not to participate in the accelerator.
“Think little gardens next to the road on the verge,” continues Yair, “or break up areas of tarmac that aren’t being used for a little garden. It’s not a new concept – this year a law has been introduced so developers have to put in sustainable drainage, such as at Eddington.”
Clara adds: “There’s lots of guidance with local planning but what has been missing is what we’re going to do with existing urban infrastructure. In fact, a sustainable drainage policy has been planned for years but that has yet to be enforced.”
Water Sensitive Cambridge is developing a map of drainage across the city which will help identify the optimal locations for retrofitting.
The situation on the ground is changing: the UK government’s ‘new approach to sustainable drainage’ policy has been outlined in a policy review published earlier this year, and is set to become law in 2024. In Cambridge, the 2018 Local Plan addresses drainage issues such as paving over gardens, tarmacking over an area greater than 5 sq m, protecting open spaces and boosting biodiversity in the built environment.
SuDS – Sustainable Drainage Systems – are in use in Eddington, although not all new developments in the region. Indeed, sustainable drainage systems are the preferred approach to managing rainfall from hard surfaces and can be used on any site, says Cambridge City Council, whose recommendations are listed here.
Meanwhile, Water Sensitive Cambridge is gearing up. As well as joining Accelerate Cambridge, it is working with Cambridge Past Present & Future, Abbey People, CoFarm and the city council on a project to build a pilot rain garden – “and we’re very happy to be part of that,” says Clara.
There’s also a gathering on Sunday (October 1), titled ‘Dear River: Stories, Soup and Thanks’, which is a one-day festival of events celebrating world rivers with “a special appreciation of the River Cam and its tributaries”. The event takes place at Empty Common Community Garden off Brooklands Avenue, and includes a guided walk, stories from Cambridge Storytellers, and workshops. Full details here.
“We are thrilled to welcome Water Sensitive Cambridge and 17 promising start-ups onto our 10-week Pre-Accelerate programme at the Entrepreneurship Centre of Cambridge Judge Business School,” said Professor Stelios Kavadias, co-director of the Entrepreneurship Centre.
“This initiative fits well with the Centre’s role in nurturing innovation and supporting the growth of start-ups in the Cambridge ecosystem, which includes developing their management and leadership skills.
“Water Sensitive Cambridge’s focus on addressing water-related challenges aligns with the focus on sustainability throughout Cambridge Judge, including our Circular Economy Centre and the school’s participation in the Business Schools for Climate Leadership organisation launched at the COP26 climate change summit.
“The Entrepreneurship Centre has previously supported other ventures relating to water and sustainability, including long-term coral reef management, and we look forward to working with Water Sensitive Cambridge to help reach this venture’s important goals.”