Editor’s note: The following post is by Sightline communications intern Michelle Venetucci Harvey. Keep an eye out for more posts from her in coming months.

 An uprising against city roosters might be just what the urban agriculture movement needs. Confused? Stay with me.

uwfarm_permission grantedWhen Seattle Mayor McGinn declared 2010 the “Year of Urban Agriculture” back in April, some folks worried that the result would be little more than some brown bag lunches and Kumbaya sessions. Luckily, the city brought much more than that to the table. In late May, the city’s Department of Planning and Development proposed a whole menu of code changes (see here for the details) aiming to “support and encourage urban agriculture.” The changes weren’t narrow ones—it was the full meal deal:

Zoning: The new code would allow for urban farms in all zones, with some limitations in industrial zones. That’s a big deal. One of the biggest barriers facing people who want to start a productive urban farm is land. Urban land is valuable, and agriculture is seen as less legitimate than a building or a parking lot. By allowing urban farms in all zones, it decreases the risk that an urban farm will be disallowed under zoning rules.

Definitions: Terms such as community gardens, urban farms, and animal husbandry all get clear legal definitions.

Regulations: The proposal also places regulations on odors, noise, and the use of chemicals associated with farming. Those regulations protect neighbors. Combine clear regulations with clear definitions, and urban farmers will be able to work within the law, instead of existing in ambiguous and marginalized space.

Farmers Markets: The code would add farmers markets to the definition of multipurpose retail sales. Changes like this start to break down barriers to selling food outside of grocery stores and restaurants—and could legitimize the organizations in Seattle that aim to sell produce grown on urban land.

Chickens: No, I’m not kidding. The code would increase the number of chickens allowed on residential property from three to eight—with a verbal assertion from councilman Richard Conlin to continue allowing one rooster per property.

It is this last proposal that seems to be the most contentious.

At a public hearing last Wednesday, organizations related to urban farming and sustainable living—including Creatives4Community, the Seattle Urban Farm Company, Food Lifeline, and the University of Washington Student Farm—expressed wholehearted support of the proposal, and spoke of the community-building, sustainability, and health benefits of urban agriculture. Many also commented on the need to connect these changes to other city efforts such as the Mayor’s race and social justice initiative; truly sustainable communities look at connections between environmental health and social equality.

But many of the community members crowed about one issue: roosters. One woman stood up and declared that her two minutes would be a “Chickens 101” lesson (maybe I’m reading into this too much, but her declaration that “chickens do not need roosters to be happy!” had a delightfully subtle feminist undertone). Others told stories about living next to roosters or about pest infestations. A local animal shelter representative spoke to the tragedy of abandoned roosters.

And while the discussion had a hint of the absurd, the arguments against roosters seemed fundamentally reasonable. Afterward, I chatted with urban agriculture advocates—and found that they really didn’t mind all the fuss about roosters! Rooster-less urban farms are still farms; it’s easy enough for the city council to ban roosters and pass the rest. All in all, the complaints about roosters may have served as a productive distraction from the other, more important issues contained in the proposed code revisions.

Urban agriculture is a growing trend in cities like Seattle, and legislation such as this has many positive implications for urban settings. Can we create more urban farms without roosters?

My bet is yes.

8/16/2010 News update: The Seattle City Council issued a press release announcing their approval of the legislation. As expected, roosters have been banned.

Photo courtesy of the University of Washington Student Farm.