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Judging by the city council agendas, old-fashioned clotheslines,
vegetable gardens and urban chickens are the next big thing.
In Evanston and Batavia, families are petitioning city
hall for the right to keep chickens in their yards. In Warrenville,
a family is reaching out to aldermen for help in reducing lawn
chemicals sprayed in their neighborhood. And in pockets of Chicago,
Forest Park, Naperville, Plainfield, Plano, Schaumburg and
Warrenville, families cannot hang their laundry out to dry because
their homeowners associations say clotheslines are
Mayor Richard Daley famously declared he wants Chicago to
be the most eco-friendly city in America. How green is Chicago,
really? Well, there are shades of green, depending on where you are
on the map.
Ordinances vary in the city and suburbs on recycling,
composting, capturing rainwater, using clotheslines, capturing
renewable energy and practicing other sustainable ways of living in
How permissive they are affects how local parents make
choices for the health of their families, their wallets and the
Last summer, Jennifer Warta was working in the community
garden plots she helped plant in Batavia when she polled a couple
of friends about an idea she had.
"What do you think-can I put chickens in my backyard?"
asked Warta, who stays at home full-time with her 5-year-old
She already buys and grows local food when she can and
even makes her own yogurt. But she wanted just a handful of hens to
keep as egg producers and compost contributors. Her friends
suggested she bring the issue up with city officials.
Warta and fellow community garden board member Betsy
Zinser, a mom of two kids age 12 and 16, did their research first.
They looked into municipal codes, which in the early 1990s banned
all chickens within city limits after residents of a new
development complained about a commercial chicken operation. They
checked with like-minded online groups whose members ran into high
permit fees and an official who says the city would approve urban
chickens "over my dead body."
Then Zinser spent the summer visiting chicken owners in
and around Batavia and quizzing their neighbors, as
"I asked about composting chicken poop, and they shared
that with me," Zinser says. "I talked to the neighbors, and one man
was defensive because he thought I was going to try and stop
Warta and Zinser put their findings into a presentation
they made to the Batavia City Council. The council seemed open to
the idea but postponed a decision that may finally come this month
or next. However, not everyone agrees.
Some residents envision roosters waking them up (there
would only be hens, Warta says) and a stench emanating from the
yard (Zinser says the manure from four or five chickens does not
smell). Jim Kirkhoff, chairman of the Batavia Environmental
Commission, an advisory board to the city, says this is how some
people respond to any sustainability issue, whether it's solar and
wind power or chickens.
"There's a lot of the 'we tried that' syndrome … so
there's this knee-jerk response that we can't do that," Kirkhoff
They just need time, he says. For example, people are
experienced with energy-efficient HVAC systems, windows and
appliances, now primary selling points for homes. Backyard chickens
are met with skepticism by people who aren't experienced with
In her research, Zinser found more codes and covenants
that, "like blue laws, are still on the books long after they're
culturally normal," she says. Among them:
"Because it looks weedy," Warta says.
"And it's because of social norms," Zinser says. She also
listed what people can do in her community: idle their cars as long
as they please, use as much water and energy as they please, spray
their lawns with whatever chemicals they please, run their air
conditioners as loudly as they please, and so on.
People will defend the status quo even when they know
better because it seems easier, she says.
Christina Ogan of west suburban Warrenville feels the same
way. In her case, the defenders of the status quo are on her
townhome association's board of directors.
Her townhome association hires the company that sprays
fertilizer and weed killer on the neighborhood lawns. A white flag
at the entrance to the neighborhood warns residents when their lawn
has been sprayed and that they should keep kids and pets off the
lawn for 24 hours.
She's been concerned about sustainable living for a long
time, but that intensified when she became a parent.
"Once my son was born, John, who is now 4, I became more
active," she says.
Ogan asked the townhome association if the lawn company
could skip her home. When the board refused, she spoke up about
safer alternatives. She sent news articles to board members. She
booked a guest speaker from a local college to talk about lawn
chemicals' impact on the environment. She researched lawn companies
that use more eco-friendly products and sent recommendations to the
"They look at me like I am a crazy person," she
Now she's enlisting the help of a newly elected city
alderman who lives in her neighborhood.
Ogan has won some battles. She asked for a one-day notice
that the lawn company was coming. She also asked that the lawn
company not spray a vacant lot so she could create community garden
plots there; the board approved.
She says she's passionate about this because she feels
responsible for her family's health.
"Unnecessary chemicals are everywhere: our lawns, our
food, our water, our bodies," she says. "Our environment and our
bodies are connected. Until we get rid of all these unnecessary
chemicals, we will continue to be sick."
The lesson she and others learned is that one parent can
fight the government on environmental issues affecting your
home-even in places where the mayor doesn't require builders to
install rooftop gardens.
Back in Batavia, Kirkhoff had some advice for people who
wish their communities were a deeper, more eco-friendly shade of
"If you have obstacles and you have passion, you're
halfway there," he says.
Katie Foutz is a mom and freelance writer living in Bolingbrook.
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