Saturday, August 16, 2014

Regulating Chickens

So this week another city in Illinois--Rockford, about 85 miles northwest of Chicago--is considering allowing people to keep hens in their backyard. One of the alderman there was quoted as saying, "There seems to be quite a bit of momentum from the pro-chicken group." Good for them! I hope they're successful.

It's still hard for me to understand why people would be opposed to their neighbors keeping a few backyard hens. Certainly there's a lot of misinformation about chickens--people think they're loud, they're smelly, they cause disease, etc.

When Champaign revised its ordinance last year to make it possible for folks to keep backyard hens, the City Council did so with a few restrictions:
  • A license must be issued to legally raise hens.
  • No roosters allowed.
  • Up to 6 hens allowed.
  • Coops may only be located in the back yard.
  • Only residents of single family and two-family homes are eligible for a coop license.
  • The coop must have a minimum of four square feet per hen.  The run must have a minimum of eight square feet per hen and be covered on all sides, including the top.
  • Residents who do not comply with Sec. 7-19 – Hens and all applicable sections of the Champaign Municipal Code will be subject to enforcement action.

Although I would do whatever was needed to keep chickens, I had mixed feelings about this kind of regulation. Early last year, I had talked with a number of folks in Urbana who kept chickens, as well as people who lived near chickens, and no one seemed to think there were any serious problems that needed policing.

I wouldn't want chickens if I didn't think I could keep them and still be a good neighbor. In fact, even before I visited the City Council, I'd already decided I wasn't interested in keeping roosters, and I didn't plan to let my chickens free range, since I didn't want them to be carried off by hawks or other predators. But it still makes me wonder why people are so nervous about their neighbors keeping a few chickens in the backyard.

There was a time, after all, when people didn't see chickens as incompatible with city life. During World War I, people were encouraged to keep chickens in their backyard as part of their patriotic duty, and the victory gardens of World War II also included chickens. So what changed? Why did so many communities outlaw chicken-keeping--even agricultural communities like Champaign?

An article I ran across in the Journal of Planning History shows how the regulation of animals in American cities was a major concern for public authorities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and ultimately gave rise to the establishment of planning as a profession. (See Brinkley, Catherine, and Domenic Vitiello. "From Farm to Nuisance: Animal Agriculture and the Rise of Planning Regulation." Journal of Planning History 13.2 (2014): 113-135; available here:

The authors outline several major waves of city animal ordinances, from 18th century restrictions on cattle and swine running loose in US cities to 19th century bans on urban piggeries (how I love that term!) and dairies due to public health concerns, and ultimately, to the mid-20th century removal of farm animals from most cities through city zoning laws.  In an optimistic coda, the authors note that if planners were responsible for the removal of animal agriculture from American cities, they could, with their increasing focus on biodiversity and integrated land uses, also be the ones responsible for restoring animals to urban settings.

So maybe all this chicken regulation is just the system attempting to right itself. Maybe that's what it will take to convince city-dwellers that a few chickens in their neighbor's yard are not going to cause a public health crisis, lower property values, or pit neighbor against neighbor. Maybe someday the majority of people will think it's reasonable, even desirable, to keep your own chickens rather than buy eggs and meat from factory farms. And maybe city planners (including the ones in Rockford!) will be helping to bring that change about.

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