A chicken in every yard? Why Ottawa should back urban agriculture

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My neighbour, an absolute treasure of a human being who kept us supplied with ice during our week-long derecho power outage so that we could keep my son’s prescription medication cold, is what I would call a tinkerer. He has, dotted across his suburban backyard, an assortment of machines and half-finished projects. He putters throughout the day, but never runs his power tools at night.

Though there are some who might view his activities as a suburban nuisance, he is legally entitled to his hobbies, provided he acts safely, and does not violate the city’s bylaws. If he were determined to be a fire hazard or nuisance, we have mechanisms in place that would serve to maintain the public order.

And yet the city does not share the same level of respect for urban agriculture. Where residents of the city can participate in any number of hobbies that are loud or create clutter, urban agriculture is seen with a different lens, particularly when it comes to livestock.

It is ironic that in a city like Ottawa, which boasts about how much green space is available, we view any sort of agriculture as something that is to be done far away, or be seen in a museum. Yet as food prices skyrocket and communities struggle with food security, it seems only logical that the city should encourage the development of urban agriculture.

Whether this be the proliferation of small-scale backyard farming, cultivation of spaces that are unused and currently covered by grass: such as the large fields that surround many of the on and off ramps on the Queensway; encouraging the development of green roofs and other unused urban spaces for farming; or changing the laws surrounding chickens and other small farm livestock. The city is falling short of its substantial promise.

When you ask city officials why Ottawa maintains a ban on chickens for properties that do not have an agricultural zoning, they will tell you that the birds pose a fire hazard. Tell me, what risk is present in a chicken run that you do not see in a dog run, a backyard workshop, or even a densely grown garden? Each can be dangerous if not properly maintained, and yet we do not hold those to the same legal restrictions that we do chickens.

The same bylaws surrounding noise, clutter and safety that maintain order among the backyard woodworkers and tinkerers of the city could easily be applied to chickens. The city should immediately end its chicken ordinance and allow for limited residential ownership of chickens.

In the case of urban agriculture, the city’s tree-planting policy could shift towards ensuring a greater availability of nut- and fruit-bearing trees. Unused public land that currently requires mowing and other maintenance could be developed for agriculture, the proceeds of which could support low-income communities and food banks with locally grown, fresh produce. Even if those resources are accessible to the public, we can ensure low-cost, high nutrient-value food to people who may otherwise not be able to afford it. We spend the tax dollars on maintenance and planting anyways; why not at least get something we can use from it?

In tough times, we have seen the benefits of urban agriculture. It has provided sustenance to communities in times of need. We are quickly approaching a tipping point in affordability and food security and it is time for the City of Ottawa to go beyond community gardens or food banks and get creative in its food policy. In doing so we can ensure the people of Ottawa have access to affordable, nutritious food, whether that be food they are allowed to grow for themselves, or food grown in creative spaces that the city makes accessible.

Source: The Ottawa Citizen
Written by Beth Lawless: an entrepreneur, analyst and writer in Ottawa.