Cynthia Barnett – The Broken Rain Machine and the Rain City



I recently read some lyrical descriptions of rain in a book by Cynthia Barnett called “Rain, A Natural and Cultural History. The book is a good read and covers a lot of rainy, and very dry, ground. I was struck by one issue in particular. Cynthia’s prose struck a chord when she described two cities in America, and how they manage rain. The first city is Miami in South Florida, the second being ‘The Rainy City’; Seattle.

She writes; “Before its farms and cities, southern Florida was dominated by the Everglades, a shallow mosaic of freshwater and sawgrass that flowed south 130 miles to the sea. The late writer and Everglades champion Marjory Stoneman Douglas often referred to the great marsh as South Florida’s “Rain Machine” The Everglades absorbed the deluges, filled up the chain of lakes at the north end of the glades, topped off the groundwater in the aquifer, and sent a vast sheet flow southward, returning rain to the mangrove-lined estuaries of its birth…

Most of South Florida’s 7.5 million residents live atop the broken rain machine; less than half the original Everglades remains. Without its sponge, the region is prone to severe flooding that can overflow canals and stall cars in swamped streets. But the most profound illogic is that Souther Florida regularly contends with drought emergencies even while surrounded by freshwater … The fast growing cities in this region over tapped the aquifer and now scramble to build costly drinking water plants even as the Everglades plumbing flushes 1.7 billion gallons of rainwater to sea every single day. 

On the flood side, when too much rain swells Lake Okeechobee, water managers must release billions more gallons to avoid a catastrophic breach of its dikes. In the lake, the stormwater simmers into a toxic brew with agricultural and urban wastes including sewage, manure and fertilizers… the polluted water travels in black plumes down the rivers and out to estuaries at the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, where it can kill fish, spur toxic red tides and shut down beaches.

Cynthia goes on to talk about the ‘City of Rain’ Seattle and their own urban rain mistakes which have lead to a ‘rain revolution’.

Seattle is at the forefront of a rain revolution that gives floodwaters more natural places to drain, replaces impervious surfaces with porous ones and clears rain’s pathways to aquifer and sea. Like many revolutions, this one began in the streets – actually along the edges, as engineers and landscape architects replaced concrete curbs and drains with grassy swales, and planted hundreds of trees and shrubs to help filter and slow the flow of stormwater. The first green street they finished, in 2001, eliminated nearly all runoff. 

Rain gardens are another of the strategies that prove as effective as they are beautiful. Washington State University scientists found that street-side gardens clean up 90 percent for more of the pollutants flowing through on their way to Puget Sound. Green roofs likewise absorb and clean up rain… Cisterns like the blue one on Seattle’s Vine Street capture the rain and store it for irrigation. Beckoning Cistern and its reaching hand suggest Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. The idea is a new ethic for the way we live with water and rain.

This is a beautiful verbal illustration of the challenges and tremendous work done in the USA and Australia and everywhere communities are engaging and learning to work with natural systems and the precious cycle of rain.

Beckoning Cistern is an artwork by Buster Simpson who does some wonderful work in Seattle. Buster is also credited with the photo above and can be contacted at