By Bailey Kennedy
As spring continues to bubble into life (even in Massachusetts), people across the country are planting gardens in anticipation of a fall harvest. A few of these happy people will probably be harvesting something else along with their vegetables: a hefty fine from their municipal government.
Many state and municipal governments have adopted regulations and ordinances which, while well-intentioned, may discourage people from starting at home gardens — or even force people to abandon their gardening project after it is already in the ground. That’s a problem with implications for health at a hyperlocal scale.
At home-gardens have been recognized as an important tool in helping to supplement global nutrition, with projects around the world using home gardens to help food insecure families. At home in the United States, we also have millions of families struggling with food insecurity. Pilot projects have shown that at-home gardens help Americans dealing with food security to eat healthier and save substantial amounts of money.
Why, then, do so many municipal codes seem aimed at discouraging at-home gardeners? An examination of state codes concerning urban gardens reveals that while some states have enacted measures to encourage the development of urban gardening projects, others seem determined to make urban agriculture much more difficult than it needs to be. Even if a person who wishes to begin an urban gardening project finds that they can easily comply with all state ordinances, they will also have to take care that they do not run afoul of the municipal government. The city of Somerville, Massachusetts, for instance, has issued a 28-page guide for anyone wishing to start a gardening project within the city. The guide itself refers the prospective gardener to a number of other ordinances that might also govern the project, including, most ominously, the zoning code. The agricultural zoning ordinance, in turn, while demonstrating a truly well-meaning commitment to encouraging at-home gardeners, is difficult for a lay-person to parse, and may discourage otherwise committed gardeners from pursuing their dream.
Somerville’s ordinances are not particularly out of the ordinary, nor are they uniquely difficult to navigate — but they do illustrate the truth that municipal governments exhibit significant control over the lives of their residents, and that this power can be used to encourage or discourage healthy behavior. The Healthy Food Policy Project has created a guide that can be used by municipal governments in issuing navigable ordinances relating to urban gardening. The guide suggests that ordinances be extremely specific about what behavior is allowed and is not allowed, and specifically points to small-animal husbandry as something which can potentially be encouraged by zoning codes.
But even if ordinances are easy to understand and navigate, city leaders should take the time to decide whether they are truly needed. Yes, a city can issue a regulation prohibiting its citizens from keeping chickens in the backyard without a license — but why is a license needed for chicken-keeping, while people can happily allow their cats to have kittens in the house without attracting the ire of city hall? Are we concerned about the well-being of the chickens? They might well be better off in a backyard in Brooklyn than they are in most places that chickens are kept in America. Are we worried about the neighbors? People happily co-exist with chickens, goats, and more in countries around the world, with no appreciable harms.
Yes, regulating health and safety is an important role for local governments. But, as local governments take up their regulatory power when it concerns backyard farmers, they should think about whether regulations they implement with the goal of preventing harm might not also come at the expense of doing considerable good.