The History of Urban Animal Raising Informs its Future

by Lexi Harder

Published: 10/17/17, Last updated: 5/24/19

I’ve been working at Oko Farms, New York City’s only outdoor aquaponics farm, for over a year and a half, and in that time I’ve seen hundreds of people pass through our gates. The one thing that remains the same from visitor to visitor is the sheer delight with which they greet our 400 fish upon entering the farm. Never mind the sustainable agricultural model, or the intricacies of the plumbing; at least at first, everyone just wants to watch the fish swim. While the novelty of hanging out with animals — aside  from our familiar cats and dogs — in Brooklyn every day may be lost on me, to newcomers it could not be more exciting.

In the past decade or so, urban farming has seen a dramatic rise in popularity. And more and more gardeners in American cities have gravitated towards using whatever space they can cobble together to raise animals, from chickens and ducks and rabbits, to the more esoteric goats and fish. Trying to bridge our culture’s disconnect with where meat comes from and knowing the animals were raised humanely are a few reasons why some might say no urban farm is complete without a few laying hens. Still, these so-called urban homesteaders are often met with resistance from their neighbors, and most cities’ restrictive ordinances make it difficult for this practice to become widespread. In current culture, raising animals is to be kept out of the city and restricted to country farms.

But animal husbandry is a more ancient, integral part of urban living than one might believe. To us 21st century folk, the aforementioned divide between industrial city and pastoral country seems natural. This way of thought is supported by the commonly accepted archaeological argument that human settlement grew out of the invention of agriculture, and as small settlements grew into large cities and needed to accommodate more people, agriculture was pushed to the countryside. But, in her book The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs argues that the development of agriculture grew out of dense tool-making settlements, instead of the other way around. While we may never know which came first in this particular chicken-and-egg situation, it is undeniable that we are overdue for a re-exploration of our urban-agrarian past.

What can urban animal husbandry teach us about the future of farming? Today’s industrial agriculture system requires enormous energy expenditures just to ship food from the country into the city, and having your own source of protein in your backyard would certainly save a trip to the grocery store. But beyond cutting down on food miles, urban animal husbandry has a host of benefits, or ecosystem services, which humans have recognized for millennia.

Managing Water Systems with Aquaponics

While aquaponics may be a groundbreaking new technology to our 21st-century minds, it was a way of life for the citizens of the ancient city Tenochtitlan, on top of which Mexico City stands today. The chinampas were a system of productive floating gardens that were built over a vast and complex system of built canals surrounding the naturally swampy city. As in aquaponics, these gardens were fertilized by fish living in the canals, while the crops kept water clean for the fish and the city dwellers tending the gardens. This system, which can be dated as far back as 1100 CE, was instrumental in sustaining the Aztec capital’s demands for food.

The ancient Aztecs were not the only ones to have seen the advantage of mimicking natural aquatic ecosystems. In several instances in rice-producing cultures where rice paddies need to be flooded, fish are also a natural component of cultivation, although not one of the main products.

Pollination and Bee Products

Urban animal husbandry isn’t restricted to just animals — perhaps the world’s most famous pollinator, the honeybee, has been a part of human life possibly as far back as 40,000 years ago, when our ancestors collected honey from wild bees. Honey as a product is so useful that it was revered in many cultures for its use as a sweetener, in its use in mead, as an antibacterial substance and as a preserver. In ancient Egypt, bees were cultivated all over to meet the demand for bee products, and were kept by city-dwelling royals.

European abbeys and monasteries, self-sufficient cities in their own right, were also centers of beekeeping, where beeswax was coveted for its ability to burn without creating smoke or ash. Today, we know we rely on honeybees for much more than their products, as they provide the essential service of pollinating our crops and natural ecosystems, despite dying at increasing rates from Colony Collapse Disorder. Beekeeping in cities has reached something of a fever pitch, where so many people are now keeping bees that experts say the competition between bees for food is unsustainable. Although in my opinion, it is just a great opportunity to increase green spaces in cities.

Sanitation and Transportation

It’s actually not necessary to look back into the distant past for examples of urban cohabitation with animals. In fact, in the United States, humans lived intimately with animals until around the turn of the century, and in many developing nations displaced rural farmers bring subsistence farming with them to the city. Early American colonial cities all boasted commons on which animals grazed, such as in the case of the Boston Common.

In the 19th century, before a designated department of sanitation, an estimated ten to twenty thousand hogs roamed New York City streets, consuming waste. And of course, before the invention of cars, horse stables were a mainstay of city life, without which transportation would have been nearly impossible. In 19th century Paris, the city used the prodigious amounts of horse manure it produced to fertilize productive urban gardens, creating its own kind of urban ecosystem.

Industrialization of Animal Husbandry

But animal husbandry has been kept out of cities for the past century for a reason. As industrialization of our economy happened in cities during the 20th century, so did the industrialization of the meat industry. Overcrowded slaughterhouses and stockyards in Chicago were famous for their nightmarish conditions and set the stage for the industrial meat system we have today. New York, along with its sometimes dangerous hog population, boasted infamously disgusting city dairies, whose milking cows were fed waste from distilleries and produced a gray substance that could barely pass as milk.

These dangerous practices furthered the notion that country animals were healthier and safer to consume than city animals, and influenced policy. No wonder that as city conditions became more and more crowded, enabling the spread of disease, and the invention of the railroad and automobiles allowed agricultural production to become outsourced, that urban animal husbandry became a thing of the past.

Urban Agriculture Has Contemporary Benefits

Contemporary proponents of urban gardens often cite the Victory Gardens from the first half of the 20th Century as one of urban farming’s greatest successes. Victory home gardeners, even in urban areas during WWI and WWII, were encouraged to keep laying hens in the backyard, so professional farmers could send eggs to soldiers. Today, chickens are the main species that comes to mind when speaking of urban animal husbandry. Urban chicken raising has become so popular that blogs and social media feeds are dedicated to it; one example is Novella Carpenter, an urban farmer from Oakland, who details in her memoir and blog her experience in raising chickens and rabbits for meat that she slaughtered herself at home.

The movement towards urban agriculture has grown so significantly in the past few years that it now garners recognition from government agencies. In 2016, the USDA published its first urban agriculture toolkit, in addition to creating its first urban outpost in Brooklyn, when for decades it was a purely rural organization. And in urban agriculture, there is a place for animals. Not necessarily for meat — a small number of chickens in a community garden, for example, will eat produce scraps and in turn create organic, nutrient-rich fertilizer for plants in addition to eggs. Urban aquaponics projects bring a sustainable protein source into cities while conserving water. While we may never see production animal operations return to our cities, there is a lot to be said for the growing movement to reintroduce certain animals into our community gardens and urban farms.

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