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 unsightly.
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 residential areas.
How permissive they are affects how local parents make choices for the health of their families, their wallets and the planet.
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 daughter.
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 well.
“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 it.”
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 says.
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 them.
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:
- Geneva’s historic district bans vegetable gardens anywhere on residential properties.
- Some neighborhood covenants prohibit purple coneflowers-plants native to Illinois-in the front yard.
“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 board.
“They look at me like I am a crazy person,” she says.
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 green.
“If you have obstacles and you have passion, you’re halfway there,” he says.
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