Bring on the Chickens

When I was an environmental studies student in college, it seemed like many people interested in environmentalism (including my profs) wrote off cities as inherently unsustainable, the dark, unpleasant, polluted nemesis of a happy green country residence build into the side of a hill like a hobbit’s hole. I have been really enjoying since then how that mindset has been challenged significantly by the smart growth movement, public transit and cycling/pedestrian advocates, environmental justice activists, and the like.

But it is true that cities do also need to green up. Sharing in the food producing can be part of that. Of course (unless you’re Detroit), we’re not going to be putting entire fields of soybeans or herds of cows into our neighborhoods. There are more city-friendly approaches. Like backyard chickens. In small shady lots like mine, with soil of questionable safety for growing vegetables, chickens are one of the best urban agriculture uses of the space. They produce a huge amount of protein, plus manure that is a great fertilizer. Protein is hard to raise in the space of a community garden plot—I’ve grown dry beans, but never more than a few meals worth per season.

Especially in slightly larger greener lots (remember there are plenty of homes in Albany outside of downtown that do actually have lawns), chicken also can perform a serious public health service: keeping down the Lyme-disease carrying tick population. Anyone near the edges of any wooded areas should especially be interested in this, but remember that ticks’ favorite host is mice—we’re not immune farther downtown either.

Oh, and they eat kitchen scraps, which can divert waste from our overfull landfill.

Unfortunately, in 2001, in an overeager response to one noisy rooster Albany banned all “livestock” in one swoop. Since then, other cities have been going out of their way to change their rules to encourage the country’s growing interest in urban agriculture as a way to bring value (and healthy food and economic development) to distressed, high-vacancy neighborhoods and to green up more established areas. Cleveland has developed a special urban agriculture overlay zone and newly liberalized livestock rules. The least Albany could do is let the hens back in.

As Metroland reported last week, happily there is a proposal afoot to do just that, sponsored by Ward 1 Councilman Dominick Calsolero. It is nothing if not cautious. Under it, roosters—which are rather noisy and aggressive—are not allowed. It requires permits and a licensing fee, specifies the characteristics of an acceptable coop and provides for inspections of them, and requires neighbors’ notification. It should pass. In fact my main concern with it is that I think it’s a little over done—putting that many caveats and restrictions on it make hen ownership seem more likely to cause problems than it actually is.

Interestingly, Cleveland urban agriculture advocate Josh Klein recently told GreenCityBlueLake blog, “The more densely populated the city, the less restrictive they are toward chickens,” noting that in New York and Chicago chickens can be raised as pets as long as they’re only providing eggs.

Think about how we treat what the law calls “common household pets,” which were exempted wholesale from the livestock ban. None of my neighbors have to notify me before tying up a possibly vicious dog in a yard next to mine, and they don’t have to have an inspection that shows the fence is too high to jump. Give me chickens any day.

Several people have brought up the dog parallel in fact. The only reason that we could consider banning chickens and not dogs is that dog ownership is common enough that if you breathed a word about restricting it, even based on incidents much worse than a few people being woken early by a rooster, you’d be strung up. I’m not suggesting that we should restrict dog ownership. But I am suggesting that if we go by the actual facts on safety, public health, noise, and community benefit, rather than by knee-jerk associations about what’s normal, it’s a bit silly that we have to debate hen ownership in the city at all.

The reason we are, I suspect, is that raising your own food, especially animals, in an urban setting has, sadly, often become the province of the poor, immigrants, or of those with a particular political orientation toward self-reliance, so it’s easier to marginalize. But that’s been changing too, as the value of self-reliance gains a wider appeal.

Albany has recently said through its Albany 2010 process that it wants to be a green city. Letting the hens back in would be one small, but meaningful, way to show we mean it.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Nov. 24, 2010. The bill in question was passed by the common council and vetoed by then Mayor Jerry Jennings. As of 2016, backyard chickens are still not allowed in Albany.)

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