Municipal Policy as Part of Local Food Systems Governance: Backyard chickens and land for growing
After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:
- Describe the role of municipal policy in local food systems.
- Evaluate the engagement and influence of different actors in the policy development process.
- Explain how policies evolve over time.
- Recognize the importance of decolonizing food systems and re-building Indigenous foodways.
While issues of housing, transit, or waste collection can all be quite controversial, the debate on raising hens and growing food in urban spaces can really ruffle some feathers. Debates such as these are part of the public policy ecosystem. Public policy is, to use Thomas Dye’s definition from 1972, “anything a government chooses to do or not do.” While personal policy (the rules we use to guide our actions) and organizational policy (the rules and guiding principles of a company or group of people) also intersect with our everyday lives, the focus of this chapter will be the role of municipal governments in public policy.
Public policy across scales—municipal, regional, provincial, national, or international—can come in many forms and is often situated within a specific community or context as part of the larger structures of governments.
It is important to acknowledge that municipal policy is a form of settler-colonial governance, as it is made for and by settler communities across the United States and Canada. This chapter highlights several projects that support the revitalization of foodways and knowledges in food systems.
Municipal policy in food systems
Local sites of governance, such as municipal governments, are becoming increasingly important for food systems policy transformation. Municipal and regional governance offer one of the most intimate and grounded spaces for policy implementation—narrowing the gap between the structures that govern and the people who are affected.
The following cases explore the role of municipal policy in food systems. To provide a more grounded view on the policy development process, I focus specifically on two areas: backyard chickens and land for growing. It is important to note that municipal food policy is much broader than just these two areas, encompassing issues from the number of food retail outlets in a community to the creation of pollinator habitats. While both cases presented are based in Ontario, Canada, links to other examples in the United States and Canada have been included to explore what is happening in other communities.
Before beginning this section, take a few minutes to read and view this article and archived video clip from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
In Toronto, Ontario, Canada, the UrbanHensTO pilot project was launched in 2018, but debate on the subject is far from new. The case of Toronto shows how policy evolves, rather than being a binary decision made at a discreet point in time. Advocacy coalitions, policy champions, and policy brokers may all play a role in the outcome of the policy development process. The 1980s saw a rise in concern from both community members and policy makers (i.e., City Councillors) about the negative impact chickens could have on the health and well-being of residents. Noting odour, noise, and nuisance, the Toronto City Council supported the adoption of a bylaw banning the ownership of poultry.
This decision shifted poultry-owning policy from a more laissez-faire approach towards an active restriction on ownership. While there were active participants on both sides of the debate, the blunt use of a restrictive policy instrument meant that chicken farmers who chose to keep their flock would be in violation of city rules. In the decades since, advocates have lobbied, researched, and educated communities about the benefits of chickens in an urban setting, as well as researched how to mitigate the earlier risks or nuisance concerns. Using communication tools, such as sample letters, education materials, social media and online forums, and petitions, advocates have continued to fight for re-evaluation of the previous policy decisions.
In 2018, these long-fought efforts were partially recognized with the introduction of a time-limited pilot program that would run in specific wards of the city. Coverage of the decision also notes the importance of policy makers as advocates from within the governance structure. For UrbanHensTO, a set of city councillors were supportive and championed the efforts of advocates at the municipal level. In addition, a broader coalition of individuals and organized networks created a system of information sharing and advocacy. Urban chickens—and urban farming more generally—are both a way to grow food in city settings and are activities that highlight the role of municipal governance in food sovereignty. In addition to the municipal-level, policy at all scales can create enabling frameworks that allow for community-led and community-informed decisions.
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City Lands, Bylaws, and Urban Growing
Urban food growing can occur on both private and public property, given the right conditions and rules are in place at the municipal level. In Hamilton, Ontario, policy makers and advocates have been working to create an enabling environment for growing food in communities across the city. In thiscase, a key report was submitted to the City of Hamiltonby the Urban Agriculture Working Group (“the Group”)thatbecame the basis for change. The Group brought together members of housing, health, public works, and other departmentsto study howlocal food systems could be enabled across the municipality. By providing a wide range of recommendations, the Group was able to tackle the role of different policy tools across the municipal government. The Group used theirreport to outline the benefits of urban growing as well as the different changes necessary to create an enabling policy environment. These recommendations included using policy planning tools (e.g.,official plans and zoning) as well as other policy levers (e.g.,food strategies, land inventory, and supportive policies and programs).
One of the largest success stories in the city has been McQuesten Urban Farm.Buildingon the lands behind a former school, this Urban Farm grew from the efforts of community advocates, city officials, and local community members. In addition to land identification, the location of this project was tied to more systemic challenges of food insecurity, including limited access to fresh fruits and vegetablesin the community. Key to McQuestenUrban Farm’s success is both access to land and support (financial, community, and knowledge). By identifying a parcel of public land that was ideal for the community’s vision, advocates worked with policy makers and policy brokers toidentify the needs of communities and the requirements to realize the project.
While this project is symbolic of a shift towards anenabling framework forurban growing,the ideal conditionsare influenced by much more than this single project.Hamilton is now seen as an example of how to create urban growing environments that work for and are developed by communities. In 2016, Hamilton City Council endorsed the Hamilton Food Strategythat outlines goals, recommendations, and actionsthat help support local food systems. Otherexamples of community advocacy and localactioninclude those in Athens, Georgia, Denver, Colorado, Guelph, Ontario, and Halifax, Nova Scotia.
In both cases above, nuance and advocacy were key in pushing for the consideration, expansion, or reconsideration of a desired policy. By acknowledging the past criticisms and looking towards municipalities that have adopted different policy approaches, advocates were able to work with city staff to table pilot projects or programs that were thoughtful of incorporating nuance. Cross-jurisdictional learning allowed for the cities of Toronto and Hamilton to look at other North American municipalities for policy options and how communities have responded to change. For municipal food policy, these different forms of learning can be important for policy processes and advocacy within movements. The role of communication, policy champions and advocates, and knowledge sharing sites played a key part in the development of the different policy components and helped source solutions. In addition, food policy councils—or more broadly, food policy groups—help translate and facilitate change by working with and within municipal governments. The councils provide a dedicated space where knowledge of food and policy systems merge.
Local food policy is much older and deeper than governance of or by a municipality. Looking beyond these settler forms of local governance (such as the municipal, state, or federal systems), it is important to recognize the intimate relationship between community and sustainable foodways. Indigenous communities have been active in decolonizing food systems and empowering Indigenous knowledge through ways of growing/eating/being. See the resources below for more on how food sovereignty is growing within and across communities.
- What food issues are important to your community? Are you aware of existing municipal or regional food policies that addresses those issues? If not, why do you think there is a gap?
- What elements, people, and resources are involved in the creation of a new food policy (e.g., advocates, policy brokers, community-identified needs, etc.)? How can communication tools be used to increase engagement in food policy processes?
- How can community movements help decolonialize food growing and eating practices? Can you achieve one of the actions set out by the Native Food Systems team?
Backyard Chicken Policy Comparison
Look at the list of municipal backyard chicken policies below. Read each of the policies and how policy development can differ. Note such variations as the number of chickens, the lot size of an owner’s property, and the limitation or banning of roosters. What other differences can you find? Are there similarities across policies?
- Austin, Texas
- Edmonton, Alberta
- Kitchener, Ontario
- New Orleans, Louisiana
- Portland, Oregon
- Seattle, Washington
- Victoria, British Columbia
- Whitehorse, Yukon
Understanding Food Policy Groups
Food policy groups—such as councils—can bring knowledge and act as policy brokers in communities. Write a short plain language report outlining the debate and decision of a recent urban food policy process by a city council of your choosing. To find more information on municipal food policies or groups, see the BC Food System Policy Database (for Canada) or the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future’s Food Policy Networks project (for the U.S.), or look for a food policy database in your area.
Use the following guiding questions to write your report:
- What is the name, area of work, and primary focus of the food policy group you chose?
- Whose interests does the food policy group serve? Who is in/employed by the group?
- What are the key topics being debated? Are there opposing viewpoints? What are they?
- Who are the key stakeholders or groups that are/will be impacted by the policy being debated? Are there any external interests influencing the debate?
- What are the main concerns about the policy? What are the potential benefits?
- If a policy decision has been made, what are the key points of that policy?
Gather, a film about Indigenous reclamation of spiritual, political and cultural identities through food sovereignty.
Hamilton’s McQuesten Urban Farm. (video)
CBC Archives. 2019. “The Battle over Backyard Chickens That Hatched in 1980s Toronto.” CBC. May 2, 2019.
Howlett, M. and Cashore, B. (2014). Comparative Policy Studies: Conceptualizing Public Policy.
Moon, J. (2018). “Influencing Policy Change: Finding a Champion.” Berkley Public Policy Journal.
International Centre for Policy Advocacy. 5.2.1 Identify policy brokers or champions.
Langford, S. (2020). “What happens to the backyard hens after Toronto’s pilot program ends?” Toronto Star.
Rankin, C. (2019). Kids are the leaders and heart of McQuesten Urban Farm. CBC Hamilton.
- Howlett & Cashore 2014. ↵
- To learn more about the basics of policy, see “What is Policy?” Food Security for All. (2005). Section 4. Available at: http://partcfood.msvu.ca/section4/4.pdf. ↵
- See: “The battle over backyard chickens that hatched in 1980s Toronto.” Posted on May 2nd, 2019 (filmed in 1983). Available at: https://www.cbc.ca/archives/the-battle-over-backyard-chickens-that-hatched-in-1980s-toronto-1.5100066 and “The battle over backyard chickens that hatched in 1980s Toronto.” Posted on May 2nd, 2019 (filmed in 1983). Available at: https://www.cbc.ca/archives/the-battle-over-backyard-chickens-that-hatched-in-1980s-toronto-1.5100066↵
- Langford 2020. ↵
- For more on the municipal food policy history in Hamilton, see: https://www.hamilton.ca/sites/default/files/media/browser/2016-09-01/hamilton-food-strategy-2018.pdf (starting on p. 7). ↵
- See https://www.hamilton.ca/government-information/news-centre/news-releases/hamilton-city-council-endorsed-10-year-food. ↵
- While the Toronto Food Policy Council (TFPC) is often used as a prominent example, Food Policy Groups are present across the world. ↵