Forward to the Past

Revisiting chicken politics in the Old Pueblo.

November 16, 2015

Issue 15: November/December 2015Policy


“Let the Hen Whip the Kaiser,” the promotional posters said. During the First World War, Uncle Sam urged all Americans to keep chickens in their backyards as a patriotic duty to help the war effort. “The European contest will be won by the side that can feed its people and its soldiers the longest … It’s both patriotic and profitable to keep the laying hen.”

A century ago, backyard chickens were part of a national strategy for household food security and a symbol of American solidarity. But since then, social changes have driven changes in public policy so that in many cities, including Tucson, backyard chicken-keepers are operating outside the law.

Hens are now back on the public policy agenda as the City Council considers an urban agriculture zoning code update that includes permitting community gardens and backyard food-producing animals like chickens in urban residential areas. The updated code will enable an urban environment more similar to the way things used to be.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Tucson was a city of about 7,500 residents, the majority of them descendants of people who had lived in the area since before the land was purchased from Mexico in 1853. In the barrios, families had long kept gardens and food-producing animals. These animals had been prohibited from running at large since 1887. Four years after the 1894 adoption of the first city charter, Tucson adopted an ordinance barring cattle, sheep, and swine in the city, but chickens were welcomed. The first mention of chickens in city ordinances was in 1907, when coops were required to be placed at least 20 feet from any dwelling.

According to Josefina Cardenas, whose family has lived in today’s Barrio Kroeger Lane since before Tucson’s territorial period, “Keeping animals in Tucson was a way of life. Our barrio elders recall keeping horses, chickens, and ducks when they were growing up.” Food production was an important component of the Cardenas family household economy. “My grandfather told me about walking with a basket filled with produce and eggs and taking it to the Chinese grocery stores to sell,” she says. The government’s call to raise chickens wasn’t necessary for residents of Tucson’s Southside barrios, as it was already a part of their cultural heritage and an important contribution to household economics.

At the same time that the government was urging Americans to keep chickens, other social trends were underway that would come to encroach on backyard food production. Health conditions in large cities at the turn of the century were deplorable. Pollution from industry and slaughterhouses, mixed with overcrowded tenements and the accumulation of horse manure in the streets led to outbreaks of cholera, yellow fever, and tuberculosis. In response, many cities adopted zoning codes and designated the types of activities that were permitted or excluded in each zone. Residential, agricultural, industrial, and commercial land uses were separated, a practice that the U.S. Supreme Court found constitutional in 1926.

Tucson did not share the urban environmental challenges of the large cities, but it did adopt a zoning code in 1930. The code separated industrial, manufacturing, trade, and commercial activity from residential areas, but agriculture was not mentioned at all.

By midcentury, backyard food production was still a way of life in the barrios. Cardenas recalls backyard food production from her own childhood in the 1960s: “We grew everything edible in season: corn, squash, chiles, watermelon … we had fruit trees and figs. There was a small ramada for grape vines, and we had chickens and little pigs.” She remembers that the food produced would be shared with family and friends in the neighborhood. Margarita Kay, an anthropologist who studied health and illness in Mexican households, documented that there were not only chickens but also cows, horses, goats, and turkeys being raised in Barrio Kroeger Lane in the 1970s.

In Anglo neighborhoods, the story was different. An influx of Anglos between 1950 and 1960 resulted in a 368 percent population growth, fueling a housing boom that expanded the city to the north and east. In those days, Anglo-Americans idealized a suburban lifestyle, one that included large residential lot sizes, privacy from neighbors, and ornamental vegetation rather than food-producing plants. As the population size exploded, population density decreased, resulting in what we now call “urban sprawl.” Land use policies assumed reliance on automobiles and supermarkets for household food needs rather than on local food production and neighborhood reciprocity. Backyard gardening became a hobby rather than a necessity and chickens were replaced by dogs and cats. Today, we abide by rules created in the 1960s that require a 50-foot property line setback for chicken coops, effectively banning them on most urban residential properties.

Fast-forward to the 21st century. The health and social consequences of urban life have come full circle. Rather than communicable diseases, today’s urban design creates a breeding ground for chronic diseases related to obesity, such as heart disease, stroke, hypertension, high cholesterol, and cancers.

As a result, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Planning Association, as well as many other national health and environmental organizations, now endorse policy adjustments that enable more neighborhood and household food production. There is also increased concern about industrial agriculture practices, the carbon footprint of the food system, the sustainability of our cities, connecting children to nature, creating green spaces, supporting local economies, and protecting cultural traditions. Interest in urban agriculture has grown to be a social movement.

make-every-egg-countHere in the Old Pueblo, the old is new again, as community gardens and household food production have become widespread—which is good news for chickens. Thousands of residential properties, located in every Tucson neighborhood from the barrios to the foothills, now include a small flock of backyard hens. The Food Conspiracy Co-op sponsors an annual chicken coop tour, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona offers classes in household chicken-keeping, and the University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension offers a chicken coop demonstration project that teaches children how to care for chickens in an urban setting. More than 2,000 people belong to Tucson CLUCKS, a Facebook group where all aspects of keeping small food-producing animals are discussed.

But Tucson’s 20th century land use rules have not kept pace with the social forces that have resulted in this increase in backyard food production. Most urban chicken-keepers are outlaws because of the 50-foot setback rule for animal shelters. City zoning officials have loosened their interpretation of the rules, and they are only enforced if a neighbor complains. However, if there is a complaint, the hens have to go.

Jim Mazzocco, deputy director of Tucson’s Planning and Development Services Department, has been responsible for developing the code update that will remove many current barriers to urban agriculture. His position is that city land-use codes should be “more aligned with the local traditions and practices that have not created nuisances for surrounding property owners.” Under his leadership, current chicken-keeping practices were documented by researchers from the UA College of Public Health. Chicken-related code enforcement efforts were found to account for only 0.1 percent of all code enforcement issues.

The proposed code update is based on this work as well as expertise from the Community Food Bank, UA Cooperative Extension, Community Gardens of Tucson, Compost Cats, the Pima County Food Alliance, and input from about 250 citizens who attended a series of urban agriculture community forums sponsored by the city in 2014. As long as the city’s animal welfare rules and neighborhood sanitation and nuisance rules are followed, the proposal will allow two hens for every 1,000 square feet of property in urban residential areas, with a setback of 20 feet from a neighboring home. (Roosters will continue to be banned.) The updated code is currently under review by Mayor and Council.

Anthropologists say that public policies “encapsulate the entire history and culture of the society that generated them.” But cultures are always changing and public policy frequently lags behind social change. The saga of the backyard hen follows the history of urban development and changing cultural ideals in Tucson. If approved by Mayor and Council, Tucson land use policy will be a step forward to the past and urban hens (and their keepers) will be able to come out of the shadows and breathe a sigh of relief.

Merrill Eisenberg is an applied anthropologist who is retired from the University of Arizona’s Zuckerman College of Public Health.

Images courtesy of the U.S.D.A.’s Poster Collection, part of The Federal Library and Information Network, hosted by


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