Toward a Gastronomic Urbanism: Chicken Edition

by Hugh Bartling

In keeping with the theme of urban agriculture discussed in this space by my colleague, Barb Willard (see here), I want to use my initial post to introduce a new theoretical project which I am tentatively calling, “towards a gastronomic urbanism.”  By “gastronomy,” I am looking to the word’s Greek origins which I take to mean the laws or rules (-nomy) governing the stomach (gastro).  Adding “urbanism” to the mix, the focus is on how laws or rules in urban areas can impact and structure our food system.  I start from the assumption that our current food system is insufficiently “urban,” that cities can implement policies to remedy this, and that there are good reasons for doing so.

I will elaborate on the concept of gastronomic urbanism in future posts, but for now I’d like to explore how we might think of cities, food, and rules from the standpoint of the regulation of the lowly chicken.

I’ve been interested in animals as a cultural force in cities for a number of years–particularly since reading Mike Davis’  book Ecology of Fear which is a great example of a work that explores the ways in which animals have been deployed as stand-ins for urban disorder.  As a social scientist concerned with public policy, I have been interested how these cultural considerations of the animal’s “place” in the city gets reflected in the realm of regulation and policy making.

In late 2007 an alderman from Chicago proposed restricting chicken-keeping in the city and there was a huge outcry and organizing using a combination of social networking websites and old-fashioned lobbying to quash the proposal.  The publicity surrounding the Chicago controversy along with other high-profile media reports on the prevalence of chicken-keeping nationwide has sparked a resurgence in the practice.

I say a “resurgence,” because local food production (both animal and otherwise) has always been a feature of urbanism.  Lewis Mumford, for instance, in The City in History, identifies the domestication of plants and animals in the Neolithic period as laying the groundwork for urbanism.  Being able to manipulate nature through cultivation and husbandry made the nomadic life less urgent and by literally “putting down roots”, humans – accompanied by a variety of domesticated plants and animals – began constructing durable edifices, developing infrastructure, and creating technologies that expanded the capacity of humanity to manipulate the environment.

Fast-forward to the burgeoning industrial city of the nineteenth century where the presence of animals is prominent, but in a different way.  Here in Chicago–as adeptly chronicled by William Cronon in Nature’s Metropolis–the city’s rapid growth had a lot to do with technological advancements rationalizing livestock slaughtering and the distribution of the final product.   These processes contributed to the development of a logic of centralization and consolidation that characterizes our contemporary industrial food system.

Bringing the discussion up to the present, the shortcomings of this industrial food system are becoming more widely acknowledged.  From the standpoint of health, climate, economics, and taste there is a recognition that its sustainability is questionable. Thus, efforts like legalizing chicken-keeping are reflective of cultural shifts to respond to the current unsettled situation.

The institutions, networks, cultural predilections, and practices that work to produce this situation are persistent.  Although they work on multiple scales, urban policy is an important area which shapes our food systems.  In the aftermath of the Chicago controversy, I was approached by some local food activists who were interested in challenging local prohibitions on chicken-keeping in Chicago’s suburbs. The idea was to compile information about cities that had recently changed their land-use and zoning policies to allow small-scale chicken-keeping and see what the experience had been from the standpoint of municipal implementation.

In the course of that project my students and I compiled a lot of information about these ordinance changes in municipalities across the country.  This has led to a larger project looking at the politics surrounding efforts to allow chicken keeping.  Land-use and zoning changes always have the potential to be controversial in cities.  Normally the conflict surrounds the potential for increases in traffic and crime: developers want a variance or rezoning to allow for high density or high traffic usage and immediate neighbors object.

The case of chicken politics is different, however.  The conflict is largely around what types of activities should be allowed in the city.  From the standpoint of skeptics, they wonder why anyone would want raise chickens and then focus on the possible harm allowing chicken-keeping might bring to their community.  In numerous cases, critics are concerned about such things as the pollution of the water supply, the spread of avian flu, and concerns for the animals’ safety.

This line of argument is, of course, ironic, since these are similar reasons cited by proponents of urban chicken-keeping.  The latter, however, see water pollution, animal welfare, and public health problems as byproducts of the industrial system of food production and see backyard chicken-keeping as a sustainable antidote to industrial food’s excesses.

In other cases, the debate has revolved around what I call the existential ambiguity of the chicken.  Part of the problem with existing prohibitions is that they were largely established to regulate commercial production of livestock.  Cities wanted avoid the negative neighborhood impacts of animal slaughter that characterized places such as nineteenth-century Chicago.  Alternatively, most cities do have regulations allowing residents to keep other sorts of animals such as dogs and cats.  Thus in many of the debates, advocates have to adeptly redefine the chicken.

Although there are some advocates who want to keep chickens as pets, many are attracted by their capability to produce eggs and to be dinner themselves one day.  In this reading, the chicken is not really a “pet,” nor is it a commodity.  It is a decidedly non-market mechanism to produce food–something our commodified industrial food system has trouble accommodating.

It is in interrogating this ambiguity where we might find the backyard chicken movement as being potentially “subversive,” asking us to rethink our food system and our relationship to the other living things we require for our own sustenance.  If the old song says “a chicken ain’t nothing but a bird,”  perhaps we should think of it as a (modest) vehicle for critically understanding the intersections of nature and culture.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

1 Comment

Filed under Urban Agriculture

One response to “Toward a Gastronomic Urbanism: Chicken Edition

  1. Scu

    Thanks for this post. I shared some thoughts, somewhat vaguely related, over at my blog:

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