Public Works: Chickens in the City
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Public Works: Chickens in the City

What do you do when window box tomatoes can't satisfy your pastoral urges anymore? Urban chickens, of course.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, governance, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

A chicken at Riverdale Farm. Photo by Giordano Ciampini.

When I was growing up in London, Ontario, there was a family down the block who raised chickens in their backyard. I don’t know if they collected the eggs, ate them, or sacrificed them to the dark gods, but in a time and place where multiculturalism was pizza night, it seemed impossibly exotic.

It wasn’t legal, of course, and we had little desire to emulate them anyway. Most people in the neighbourhood were generations off the farm, and had fully embraced the three p’s of modern eating: processing, plastic, and preservatives.

But as food prices rise and local food movements grow in popularity, urban poultry is making its way into the mainstream.

At the moment, grow-your-own KFC is not permitted in Toronto; back in January the City’s licensing and standards committee deferred indefinitely a request to study the idea. But more open-minded municipalities are on board the chicken train, albeit with restrictions.

In Los Angeles, you can raise as many chickens as you want provided they’re at least 35 feet from neighbouring properties (100 feet for roosters or other loud birds). New York City allows unlimited hens, but you need a permit, and no roosters are allowed.

Vancouver requires only that you register your hens (again, no noisy males) and keep them in a clean and spacious coop. You can’t slaughter them on site, and you have to take them to a facility that “has the ability to dispose of hens lawfully,” because no one wants to watch you chase Foghorn Leghorn around your yard with an axe.

Beyond those noted above, restrictions common in other jurisdictions involve limits on the number of birds, and ensuring that your flock doesn’t become a public nuisance. Generally even the most fowl-friendly cities ban backyard hen-keeping for commercial purposes, and if your charges become unduly noisy, smelly, or otherwise vexing, you could end up with a chicken eviction on your hands.

Home chicken husbandry isn’t a free brunch. Newly hatched chicks run from around two dollars each to over $20, and you’ll need extras, since they’re not especially robust. If you don’t want to McGyver an Ikea armoire into a coop, a specially bought chicken habitat will start at at about $250 and can go much higher.

There’s also feed, fencing for a “run,” and various ancillary expenses, which means that if you eat 12 organic eggs a week at four bucks a dozen, your payback period will probably be two years or more. But it’ll teach the kids a useful post-Apocalypse skill, and give you a chance to wear those overalls you were holding onto for the Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ reunion tour.

Would legal chickeneering be right for Toronto?

The benefits to urban chicken raising are self-evident. You can be sure your eggs are fresh and organic, and that the laying hens have been treated humanely. Some people like chickens as pets (tip: don’t take them to the leash-free park).

The arguments against urban chickens mostly revolve around noise/smell NIMBYism (technically NIYBYism). There’s also the fear that that backyard poultry is the gateway to creeping third-worldism, and that it’s a short, slippery slope to kids rooting through flaming garbage dumps while Sally Struthers weeps onto their dying grandmother.

However, experience in other cities doesn’t support the idea of chickens as unduly loud or dirty, provided they’re regulated appropriately. And to the argument that our cash-strapped city can’t afford the additional animal control resources required, a chicken permit fee could be levied specifically for that purpose.

The good news for Toronto fowl aficionados is that existing anti-chicken laws are generally not enforced unless there is a specific complaint, so if you keep the place tidy and grease the neighbour’s palms with some free eggs, your coop shouldn’t be in jeopardy. And as the urban farming movement spreads, it’s likely that a future city council could take a more liberal view on the subject.