on the Chickens
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 built into the side of a hill like a hobbit’s hole.
I have been really enjoying 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
Especially in slightly larger, greener lots (remember there
are plenty of homes in Albany outside of downtown that do
actually have lawns), chickens 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
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
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 overdone—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. 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 2030 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.