Posts tagged ‘Sustainability’

Urban Chickens–an opportunity

London, Ontario has the opportunity, in the next few days, to actually act like a world class city and take an active step in improving our sustainability and food security rather than playing catch-up years from now.  We have the opportunity to improve our resilience by changing the unfounded bylaws that ban laying hens in our city.

Cities all across the United States currently permit chickens to be raised within the city limits. Here’s a short, and by no means inclusive list:

“World-Class” cities that permit urban chickens:

  • Los Angeles
  • Seattle
  • Miami
  • Atlanta
  • Chicago
  • Las Vegas
  • New Orleans
  • San Fransisco
  • Salt Lake City
  • Washington
  • New York City (which, like Chicago, permits unlimited chickens, provided cleanliness is maintained)

The State of Georgia has even introduced a bill to pre-empt local ordinances and make urban chickens legal state-wide, “to protect the right to grow food crops and raise small animals on private property so long as such crops and animals are used for human consumption by the occupants, gardeners, or raisers and their households.”

Canada is slower to adopt urban homesteading, and this is where London has an opportunity to show our leadership. Niagara Falls, ON; Richmond, BC; Guelph, ON; Esquimault, BC; and Victoria, BC have passed bylaws permitting urban chickens, while many cities (including Toronto, Ottawa, and Halifax) are pushing for the same. Residents in Waterloo, ON who were raising chickens prior to their recent tied vote on the matter are permitted to keep their chickens.

Benefits of backyard chickens:

  • healthy, pesticide-free eggs
  • improve local food security
  • great way to teach children about food (a study in the UK found that nearly 2/3 of school children struggled to identify the origins of the everyday foods they eat–many thought that sheep lay eggs).
  • chickens reduce municipal waste by consuming kitchen scraps–from carrot peels to pizza crusts
  • chickens provide excellent nitrogen-rich compost for the garden, reducing dependence on fossil-fuel-based fertilizers
  • reduction of greenhouse gases through decreased food transport
  • chickens reduce back-yard pests–by eating them!
  • Chickens are people-friendly, social animals that make great pets
  • Small-scale backyard food-production contributes to vibrant urban communities by promoting sustainability

Now, urban chickens are an issue that makes many people react emotionally, to the exclusion of facts. Here’s some help with those:

Popular concerns about chickens

* Noise:

Roosters, not hens, are loud. Roosters are not necessary for egg production, and should be banned in cities, where they would be a nuisance. Hens, on the other hand, are quieter than most dogs.  Chickens cluck softly. Occasionally they will show off after laying an egg (a hen lays roughly 2-4 times a week), clucking slightly louder than their normal.   “Normal noises are not audible past 25′, the loudest noises, which last a couple seconds at about 50′” [source]. Try to imagine how far a sound of that quiet would carry from inside a coop in someone’s backyard. Now imagine how far away you can hear your neighbour’s dog barking, and how long it barks.  Do you still think noise is an issue?

* Smell:

It’s understandable that people don’t want to have the stink of shit ruining their enjoyment of life.  Shit stinks if it’s left lying around.  The smell that most people associate with chickens comes from large (unsustainable) operations, where many chickens shit continually but are rarely mucked out.

If every household in medium-sized city (20,000 households) owned six birds each, you’re still looking at a little over 160,000 pounds of phosphorous spread out across an entire city. Compare this to the industrial chicken industry practice of housing 150,000 birds in a single 500-ft long chicken house (that’s 200,000 pounds of phosphorous from one chicken house), and you see it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison regarding the concentration/disposal of the poop. [source]

No one’s asking to keep a factory farm in their backyard; the proposed bylaw would limit the total to 4-6 chickens. Here’s a little context: a single dog weighing 50 pounds produces more waste than 5 chickens [source] (but unlike dog waste, which is so dangerous that it has to be disposed of off-site, chicken waste can be safely composted and used to fuel gardens). Just like cleaning your cat’s litterbox or dog run keeps your house or yard from reeking, proper care of chicken coops prevents smells from being an issue. Chicken areas should be cleaned at least as often as a litter box is emptied. Our current animal control bylaws cover animal neglect, but do you really think that the civically engaged people pushing to change the bylaw and are ethically motivated to sustainably feed themselves are going to neglect their birds?

* Salmonella

The idea that we shouldn’t be allowed to produce our own food for fear that we might accidentally eat shit is almost to absurd to address.  So here’s how to clean eggs. Maybe people shouldn’t be allowed to grow their own organic carrots in case they don’t wash off the manure. Maybe we should ban people with babies from making food, in case they get baby poo in their food. As a quick aside, commercial beef is fed chicken shit. Just so you know. So don’t tell me we should leave food up to the “experts.”

* Bird Flu (etc)

Here’s a question: if a bird flu risk were a legitimate reason for preventing urban chickens, why is it legal to keep an unspecified number of backyard pigeons in London? I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have a neighbour with 4 laying hens than one with a flock of pigeons.

You know what spreads bird flu? A giant, unsanitary building crammed with hens standing in their own shit, rubbing up against their sick and wounded neighbours. That’s the reality of factory farms, not backyard chickens.

the sources and spread of new strains of avian influenza are more strongly related to large-scale chicken and human activity as opposed to the conventional school of thought that blames small-scale production, live markets and wild fowl [source]

Urban chicken owners are actually part of the solution.

To reduce the emergence of viruses like H5N1, humanity must shift toward raising poultry in smaller flocks, under less stressful, less crowded, and more hygienic conditions, with outdoor access, no use of human antivirals, and with an end to the practice of breeding for growth or unnatural egg production at the expense of immunity.[source]

Urban farmers invest a lot of time and money into raising their chickens, and will notice if one gets sick. Because it’s so small scale, they are also very motivated to make sure their hens are in peak health, or they lose their investment.

* Rats

Rats aren’t attracted to chickens. In fact they avoid chickens, which will attack any rat or mouse they see.  What rats are attracted to is food. Just as rats will be attracted to garbage that is properly contained, they are attracted to open feed containers.  No one wants to share their chicken feed with rodents and squirrels, so feed is stored in closed containers, perhaps even inside the house. The small portion of food that is left in chicken enclosures will attract no more rats than leaving out bird seed or a bowl of cat food for outdoor cats.

If you don’t believe me about chickens, believe the people who get paid a lot to know what they’re talking about.

Here’s an excerpt from the letter that Donald E. Hoenig, State Veterinarian for the Maine Department of Agriculture wrote

on June 18, 2007 in support of an urban chicken bylaw in his state:

I believe that the public health risk posed by allowing small numbers of backyard chickens in South Portland is minimal and can be controlled by good husbandy.  This means that their housing, feed and water, carcass disposal, and manure management are maintained using best (agricultural) management practices.
Avian influenza and other diseases may transmitted by contact with migratory waterfowl or shorebirds. This contact with backyard poultry can be minimized or eliminated by good management (adequate fencing, well-maintained feeders, closing birds in at night).

There are two areas of caution in keeping poultry in an urban environment to avoid issues which could result in nuisance complaints from neighbors. The most salient of these concerns is the possession of roosters which should be prohibited.  The second is manure management.  Flies and odor are a common cause of neighborhood complaints. Again, using best management practices to maintain the sanitation of the coop through frequent clean-outs as well as keeping it well-secured against predators by the use of adequate fencing is also essential.  I think the inclusion of a provision in the ordinance for the neighbors to rescind approval of the backyard poultry as well as the ability for the local health officer to remove the birds at any time would also head off potential problems.

Additional Reading (PDFs):

Residential Urban Chicken Keeping: An Examination of 25 Cities,” by K.T. LaBadie, University of New Mexico

Balking at Bocking: Urban Chicken Policy in Canada,” prepared by Jacqueline Jolliffe for JustFood Ottawa


April 29, 2010 at 10:12 pm 8 comments

Business School Grad on Urban Farming

I have to admit, sometimes I feel a little crazy about my urban homestead obsession, and though I try very hard to encourage the people around me to grow food (it’s so easy!), I know that sometimes the scale that I’ve taken it to can be a little intimidating.  That’s why I get excited when my web developer friends grow heirloom tomatoes on their apartment balcony (Gavin: “When the tomatoes started growing, I though it was a diseased growth.  It didn’t occur to me that tomatoes start out as these little green things”).

My friend Alec, a business school grad, has been courting my garden for some time now.  Last summer, we took him home to show him what we were growing.  He was excited about it because, as he says, he spends a lot of time thinking and reading about peak oil/climate change/sustainability issues, but he felt kind of powerless to really do anything about it.  But again this year, he was still talking about gardening, because he hadn’t felt prepared to start his own.  (Trust me, it’s not as hard as you think!) So this Canada Day, I invited him to join us for a day of gardening.  He gave me 9 hours of labour on a holiday, and sent me an eloquent thank-you note, as if his slave labour hadn’t been a tremendous help:

I realized it’s been almost two weeks since we spent the day gardening, and I never really followed up to say thanks. So…..thanks. It really was kind of you to take the time to share with me some of your knowledge about a very important skill for the future. I must admit, whether I was thinning radishes or planting tomatoes, there was a voice inside my head quietly asking “what the f@*! are you doing dude?!?” Mind you, that same voice was basically saying the same thing when I was being force-fed business school propaganda. (As I’m sure you can tell, I have a tough time hiding my bitterness with the mainstream economic/business establishment – another reason I’m seeking a positive alternative.) In any case, I’m glad I took the time to learn something new, and that you were willing to help me along my way. No doubt I have much still to learn, but the planting of that metaphorical seed was definitely a step in the right direction. I’d love to help out again sometime if you guys would be down. Anyhow, I just wanted to say thanks again. I know it probably wasn’t a big deal for you guys, but it was definitely a small, but meaningful step in the right direction for me.

Cheers ,

– Alec

July 18, 2009 at 10:22 am Leave a comment

from the ARE YOU #$@% KIDDING ME department…

We all know that food safety issues are a problem.  Although the cardinal law of business is “don’t kill your customers,” businesses like Peanut Corp. of America and Earthbound Farms are negligent or evil enough to continually attempt just that.

“If we want to have bagged spinach and lettuce available 24/7, 12 months of the year, it comes with costs.” -Bill Marler (the lawyer who represented plaintiffs in the 2006 spinach E. coli outbreak)

In an article that could be out of a spoof magazine, this article in the San Francisco Chronicle outlines how, rather than holding Big Ag and food processing companies accountable for food safety, giant food retailers are imposing new restrictions on farmers.  Okay, that’s fair enough, I guess… except when their regulations are based on pure paranoia, at the expense of science.

In perhaps an unconscious nod to the fact that it’s managing the perception of safety rather than safe practices, it’s called the “leafy greens marketing agreement.”  Here are some of their great ideas:

  • An Amish farmer that uses a horse to plow his fields can’t sell his greens to retailers, who would much rather purchase bagged lettuce trucked from hundreds of miles away (check the “product of” signs on those packages)
  • neither can a farmer who has children under 5, because, of course, diapers are our biggest threat to food safety.
  • “I was driving by a field where a squirrel fed off the end of the field, and so 30 feet in we had to destroy the crop”  “On one field where a deer… didn’t eat anything, just walked through and you could see the tracks, we had to take out 30 feet on each side of the tracks and annihilate the crop.
  • ponds are poisoned and bulldozed, poison traps are placed on the edges of fields and between rows, and companion plantings on the edges of fields are razed for “bare-dirt buffers”.

in the name of sterility.  Because everyone knows that the ecosystem is out to harm us, and the best way to interact with a system that has sustained life since the beginning of time is to beat the living shit out of it.  Real live UC Davis scientists understand that  “vegetation buffers can remove as much as 98 percent of E. coli from surface water”, but the perception of safety is more important than actual safety.  News flash:  we’ve been growing food in the dirt for a very very long time.  Did you ever notice that food safety issues seem to be happening more now than they ever did?

“In 16 years of handling nearly every major food-borne illness outbreak in America, I can tell you I’ve never had a case where it’s been linked to a farmers’ market,” Marler said.

Farming isn’t the problem.  Sustainable farming definately isn’t the problem.  Gigantic companies that can afford the occasional customer drop off here, in the name of saving some cash there, are.  (Which do YOU think is more dangerous: a container of poison, or a toad?) Instead of buying your food from companies that are trying to kill you, or that think that scorched-earth practices are a good idea, visit the farmer’s market.  The businesses there are small enough to know the value of a healthy customer.  Or better yet,  grow your own.  The dirt won’t hurt you, I promise.

(just remember to wash your food!)

July 14, 2009 at 11:20 pm 1 comment

Build your own Low Impact home. Seriously.

Simon Dale built his own low impact house with £3000, 1000-1500 man hours, and almost no previous experience. And with few exceptions, the only tools he used were a chainsaw, a hammer and a chisel. It’s absolutely stunning, and looks like it came straight out of the pages of a fairytale.
hobbit house exterior

He says,

Being your own (have a go) architect is a lot of fun and allows you to create and enjoy something which is part of yourself and the land rather than, at worst, a mass produced box designed for maximum profit and convenience of the construction industry. Building from natural materials does away with producers profits and the cocktail of carcinogenic poisons that fill most modern buildings.


His website is packed with information about how and why he did it, including plans for the house. I’m absolutely floored.

hobbit house kitchen

Via Bad Time.

June 10, 2009 at 3:54 pm Leave a comment

Imagine a Car-Free Suburb.

Here’s the result of visionary city planning: the streets of an upscale neighbourhood in Vauban, Germany are designed for pedestrians and cyclists, rather than cars.

The neighbourhood is car-free except the main road, where public transit runs. It does not have street parking, driveways, or garages attached to the homes. No more ugly snout-houses. Residents are allowed to have cars, but they have to buy a parking space at the edge of the development. Most families buy cars together or rent communal cars from Vauban’s car-sharing club when they need a car to move large purchases or to take vacations. [For the record, there are car-sharing organizations in Canada.] Sounds crazy, right? Of course it does, in a city like London, Ontario, that doesn’t have a decent grocery store downtown. But imagine what a sense of community a neighbourhood can have when people aren’t just moving between their cars and their houses. I love hanging out in my front yard and talking to the people who walk by.

The trick is actual urban design, which locates stores within walking distance.

“Development comprising jobs, shopping, leisure and services should not be designed and located on the assumption that the car will represent the only realistic means of access for the vast majority of people,” said PPG 13, the British government’s revolutionary 2001 planning document.

The Environmental Protection Agency is pushing for “car-reduced” communities in the USA, and a change in legislature may help. A six-year transportation bill to be approved this year is expected to consider public transportation service to suburbs. This is a big shift, since by law 80 percent of funding has gone to highways vs 20% for all other transport.
Still, zoning laws in the USA generally require two parking spaces per residence, and mortgage lenders can’t get behind the idea that someone would want to buy a house without space for cars. “People in the U.S. are incredibly suspicious of any idea where people are not going to own cars, or are going to own fewer,” according to David Ceaser, the co-founder of CarFree City USA.

It’s perfectly reasonable to demand enlightened thinking from your city government.

There’s a lot more to read about the topic in this New York Times article.

May 14, 2009 at 9:59 am Leave a comment

Is Your Lawn Worth Someone’s Ability to Live?

How about desert produce?

According to this disturbing article, America’s largest reservoir is drying up. It’s really simple math: the amount of water being removed from Lake Mead every year excedes the amount being fed into it by the Colerado river.
photo by Tim Pearce

In 2008, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography issued a paper titled “When will Lake Mead go dry?” which set the odds of Lake Mead drying up by 2021 at 50-50. No more water, no more electricity, no more pumping power.

This is bad news for the million acres of crops being irrigated by the water source accross the U.S. and Mexico. Oh, and the tens of millions of people who depend upon the reservoir for their water supply, and the half-million homes that are powered by “its mighty Hoover Dam”.

How did this happen?

Well, for starters, there’s the farmers who flood arid farmland with water to grow rice (what?). There’s the fact that we depend on veggies grown in the desert (how much are those California strawberries worth to you?). And then there’s the fact that residents of desert communities maintain beautiful green grass lawns, and “golfers demand courses in areas where the temperature exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit”.

Is the status of a green lawn or the convenience of out-of-season food really worth “turning the tap off for 800,000 households”?

At least they’ve started “grass buyback” programs to convince people to consider drought-tolerant landscaping. They’re offering tax incentives to people who use pool covers. Lovely.

Of course, when Las Vegas residents tried to pass a bill to allow homeowners to install graywater systems, Southern Nevada Water Authority blocked it, saying that “legalizing graywater will cause people to use more fresh water and return less dirty water to the reclamation plant”. Sorry? It’s like the laws making rain barrels illegal.

Instead of considering a shift in thinking/lifestyle, the best solutions that the Big Thinkers could come up with for the problem are either to pump water in from eastern states or to de-salt seawater.

The power requirement for either proposal—desalting seawater or transporting water over great distance—is enormous. But if the only other alternative is a mass evacuation from the western United States, what other choice do we have?

Pardon me?

May 7, 2009 at 11:26 am 2 comments

Eco-Pirates Seize Raven’s Ait

Back in February, an activist who goes by Nick Revolving, 28, was taking a leisurely boat ride in the Thames and realized that an island that once served as a venue for weddings and conferences was lying vacant as a result of the economic downturn. So he decided to do something productive with it. So he invited his friends, and with an aim to “to give it back to the people,” they’ve been squatting on it in a sustainable model commune, complete with a tree-house and raised-bed permaculture gardens.

The goal of the group is to “transform the island into an eco conference centre, aimed at showcasing green ideas and promote sustainable development” In the hopes of making it official, they’ve submitted formal plans for their “sustainable island” to the local council, but the council members are unwilling to negotiate while the squatters are still on the land.

In fact, they’ve issued an eviction notice, so my understanding of squatters rights in England is obviously flawed. It seemed to work for the Geurrilla Gardeners. Interesting though, that although the island has been vacant since November, council urgently wants them off because “there are companies interested” in the land. The community’s behind these eco-pirates, saying that “They’re serving the community”, but the group says it will leave in eight weeks time. Shame. I wonder what the consequences of ignoring an eviction notice are?

Read the article in Yahoo News. Or better yet, visit the Raven’s Ait website to read about their plans and show your support.


from the Ravens Ait Facebook page:

The island was evicted by a large armed police operation in the early hours of Friday May 1st 2009.

The council are now paying for 24 hour security with a continous rolling presence of around 10 guards (at an estimated cost of £2000 a day of taxpayers money) while they try to sell off the island.

We think this is a gross waste of taxpayers money that could have been spent supporting our proposal for a community centre. Of course the island is no longer accessible to the public either, so effectively taxpayers are paying vast sums of money to keep themselves off the island while the council prepares to sell this historic piece of common land to a hotel or property developer

What a terrible lack of vision. The group hasn’t given up, though. They’re appealing to the media to help them raise £1.5 million “to save this island as a community facility for all generations to enjoy into the future.” I’ve asked them if they have a paypal account, and will post the link if they have one, for anyone who wishes to make a donation.

May 6, 2009 at 4:31 am Leave a comment

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