This morning it rained in Cardiff. A decent soaking. ‘Big deal’ you might think, but it’s been both (unseasonably) hot and dry for about a month.

Hot and dry enough for small plants and grasses to have dried out, and for serious watering to be needed for most gardens.

Hot and dry enough to make sleeping more of a challenge than normal. The temperature downstairs in my terraced house in Cardiff has been around 24°C, and that’s with me making my best efforts at shading on both sides of the house.

It’s not just me that’s attempting to deal with the heat; a walk around Treganna demonstrates that quite a few households are choosing to use portable air conditioners to deal with night-time heat. The tell-tale is the ducting that dangles out from upstairs windows.

This is a simple and fairly instant remedy for the issue, though not without consequences. It means buying more ‘stuff’, using more electricity, generating more waste, and (presumably) an impact on noise levels in the room.

This issue is going to become considerably greater in future, as Wales becomes drier, wetter and hotter, although not all at the same time.

Urban areas are particularly affected by heating, because man-made surface tend to absorb more heat than natural surfaces, storing it up to create banks of heat that release gradually; fine if the next day is cool, but a big problem if the heat persists. There’s a handy postcode checker from the BBC that tells you how likely your area is to be affected by extreme heat.

What the postcode checker or the BBC article *doesn’t* make clear is that natural solutions can also be applied at the granular level. If you’re fortunate enough to have a garden, you can do a lot to reduce the heat in the summer.

Fruit trees and climbing plants are particularly helpful in this regard. In my experiment the other day, the shade temperature without the benefit of plants was 31°C, and in the cover of plants on the same wall was 24°C.

This isn’t some sort of secret knowledge, but sadly it also doesn’t seem to be high up in the public discourse.

It’s a shame, as there are multiple benefits from using plants to provide shade; generally they are attractive, they form part of a habitat network, and the flowers and fruits are beautiful (and tasty). The mere fact of having plants within line of sight improves well-being and mental health.

How can we enable, empower and support citizens in benefiting from these amazing benefits? In reality, my modest efforts would need to be replicated tens of thousands of times around Cardiff, and hundreds of thousands around Wales.

Creating water?

Of course, if we’re to create this wonderful green infrastructure, we need to be able to keep it alive in these times of low rainfall.

My approach to harvesting water is two-fold:

  1. As many waterbutts as your family will allow you to have, plumbed directly into the downpipes of gutters, and;
  2. Grey-water harvesting (this won’t suit most people)

These two relatively straightforward changes to your domestic infrastructure are low-cost and easy to implement – though many people unfamiliar with simple DIY skills may need support (see below).

There are multiple benefits to water harvesting. Less water ends up in the gutter, reducing the likelihood of Combined Sewer (or storm) Overflows. In principle it should reduce your water bill.

And it reduces your need to take more water from the tap (further reducing your bill and the associated greenhouse gases and pollutants associated with the water purification and delivery system).

It also means you can be quite profligate with water use if you have, as in my case, plenty of thirst fruit trees and grapevines, and children who love picking fruit!

The grey-water side won’t suit most people as there is a particular bouquet associated with using the water that’s produced; however if you’re happy to get up early in the morning (or late at night) to do the watering, the smell is gone within 5-10 minutes, and you have even more water for your plants; it’s more or less inexhaustible even in drought.

You can hear a lot more information about my approach to water harvesting and use in this podcast episode by the Consumer Council for Water, recorded in May 2023 (head to their website to find out more about other podcast episodes in the series). My sincere thanks to the super-affable Mike Keil for his interview!

Can we make it happen?

I’m just one person making a small difference, although the difference is large to my family. How to replicate this across Cardiff and Wales?

I think that a pilot project, using some of our excellent charities and third sector bodies, to support, empower and encourage people to integrate these simple, practical and effective tools for long-term shading and biodiversity improvement would be a winner. I would be happy to help put a proposal together in partnership with others. Who’s with me?