The ‘desiccator difficulty’: surprise, indignation and the local politics of planning for sanitary technology in nineteenth century Melbourne

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‘Desiccators’, large machines that used steam and beaters to reduce waste into powder that could be sold as fertilizer, were one solution put forward in response to late nineteenth century Melbourne’s sanitation problems. Despite some initial enthusiasm for them, challenges with finding locations for desiccators were soon dubbed the ‘Desiccator Difficulty’. The ‘Desiccator Difficulty’ is one, all but forgotten, story of the fragmented governance contributing to Melbourne’s delays in coordinating a metropolitan sewerage system. This paper examines desiccators as a story with parallels in and legacies for planning today. It focuses on the role of local property-based conflicts–arguing these constituted emergent forms of planning, underscoring an increasing urban separation and control later embodied in metropolitan planning and infrastructure. Fragmented standoffs and bylaws also rationalized spatial disparities–with suburban municipalities refusing to house desiccators, nightsoil was sent to outer shires for decades. The paper argues Melbourne’s socio-technical transition to metropolitan sewerage and governance occurred not because water-borne technology was necessarily superior, but because legal assumptions and property interests made alternatives difficult to maintain. Desiccators are examples of ‘muddling’ details that belie simple narratives of technological change, and which have implications for how wider urban environmental change occurs and is understood.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)433-455
Number of pages23
JournalPlanning Perspectives
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 3 May 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • KEYWORDS: Sanitation
  • locational conflict
  • Melbourne
  • planning history
  • socio-technical transitions
  • urban politics

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