Mark Covington might live in the city, but he knows a lot about raising farm animals.
The lifelong Detroiter is the founder of the Georgia Street Community Collective, an urban farm on the east side. Located near Harper and Gratiot, the site is a combination garden and community center encompassing 17 lots and features a fruit orchard, community space, kitchen, computer lab and library.
Covington began keeping chickens at the farm in 2009. He originally brought them on to use their manure for compost. But the feathered additions to the farm soon became a hit with neighborhood children.
“The kids were impressed,” says Covington. “They were excited to come to the farm, and more into what we were doing here. So some of them suggested I get other animals.”
Today a variety of animals—chickens, pigs, goats, and honeybees—make their home at the Georgia Street Community Collective. While some of the livestock produce food products like eggs and honey, their presence on the farm mainly serves as an educational resource for local youth. And according to Covington, grownups in the community have also been supportive.
“I’ve been there just about my whole life, so I know just about everybody,” he said. “The relationship is very positive with the neighbors. We’ve never had a complaint [from the city] about the animals. If there is a problem, they’ll come and tell us.”
While Covington has never been cited for keeping farm animals at the Georgia Street Community Collective, other Detroiters have run afoul of the city for keeping livestock.
Under Section 6-1-5 of the Detroit City Code, “owning, harboring, keeping, maintaining, selling, or transferring of farm or wild animals” is currently prohibited. However, exceptions can be made related to circuses, zoos, and certain other approved activities. While the city doesn’t actively patrol for livestock, those who object to them can file a complaint with the city’s Animal Care and Control Division. Violations are considered a misdemeanor offenses, and fines can be as steep as $250 per animal.
As the popularity of farm animals like chickens has grown in Detroit, officials with the city’s planning commission have looked into establishing an urban livestock and animal husbandry ordinance to legitimize and regulate their presence. Similar ordinances have been adopted across the United States in cities like New York; Portland, Oakland, CA., and in Michigan, Ferndale and Ann Arbor.
In Detroit, the endeavor to regulate farm animals goes back more than a decade. It’s experienced more than its share of stalls and starts, though momentum appears to be building again. The original effort was spearheaded by Kathryn Lynch Underwood, a now-retired city planner who was deeply involved in drafting Detroit’s urban agriculture ordinance.
The question of amending the city’s rules on livestock had been considered during discussions over the urban agriculture ordinance, which was approved in 2013. Due to the issue’s complexity, proposals relating to farm animals and honeybees were ultimately left out to focus on regulations pertaining to crops and fish farming.
Later, Detroit’s City Planning Commission began gathering input from local stakeholders and the Buildings Safety Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED) to create an ordinance specifically focused on the issue of livestock. While a working group came up with several proposed changes to the city code governing livestock and beekeeping, the effort has never quite been able to make it to the finish line.
However, Detroit city planner Kimani Jeffrey and City Council President Pro Tem James Tate’s office are now collaborating with various partners, including the consulting firm Doers Edge, the Detroit Food Policy Council, an interdepartmental city working group, and numerous community advocates to revive the ordinance.
Like other cities that have already put similar laws in place, Jeffrey says the move to reexamine how livestock is regulated in the city is a response to community interest, particularly among owners who would like to see animal husbandry and bee-keeping legalized. As for the relative inactivity over that issue for the last few years, Jeffrey attributes that to a variety of different factors.
“There wasn’t necessarily a significant pause due to COVID,” Jeffrey said, “but more so just several pauses over the years due to changing faculty and department heads, taking time to respond and adapt to stakeholder input, and in general just doing the research and trying to be intentional and thoughtful about how this is approached.”
Concerns and aspirations
While there is strong interest among the city’s urban agriculture community in legalizing farm animals in Detroit, there has also been some pushback. Some question the ability of the city to enforce such an ordinance, while others bristle at the very existence of farm animals in the Motor City. At a public meeting on the issue in 2016, for example, an east side Detroiter named Angela Peavy expressed fears that her neighborhood was turning into farmland.
Jeffrey, who has run into anti-livestock sentiment before, believes it reflects concerns, especially among Black residents whose families moved to the city from the south during the Great Migration era, about how the proposed ordinance might affect the character of the city.
“Many Black residents, specifically, that I’ve heard from over the years, have the feeling that urban agriculture and livestock is going back to the Old South sharecropping days, and they do not like that thought,” Jeffrey said.
Supporters like Covington focus on the benefits of owning livestock to city residents.
“A lot of these kids in the neighborhood don’t get out to where they can see that kind of stuff. They don’t know where their foods come from,” Covington said. “It’s an educational thing. It’s therapeutic.”
Nicky Marcot, a Brightmoor resident who’s an active supporter of an ordinance legalizing livestock, agrees. An urban agriculture advocate who has owned chickens in the past, she believes the presence of chickens and goats in her community has had a positive educational impact on her daughter and other local children. Beyond that, like many others in Detroit’s urban agriculture community, she sees raising livestock as social justice and food security issues.
“Food instability is going to be something that we will be facing,” says Marcot. “It’s going to be a reality of our children’s future. And one of the most important things is for them to know how to provide for themselves.”
The past few years’ events, from COVID-related meat shortages to rising food prices connected to supply chain issues and inflation, have highlighted weaknesses in the food systems people depend on, and climate change and other issues promise to bring more challenges in the coming years. Advocates of keeping bees and urban livestock see these activities as a source of food like meat, eggs, and honey – and useful items like beeswax and wool. They also see it as a step towards creating stronger networks to promote food sovereignty and security.
“Those in the animal husbandry community have always understood the fragility in the food system and sought to do something about it on a grassroots level,” Jeffrey said. “They also just want to know where their food comes from.”
Re-visiting the livestock ordinance
Planners with the city have been listening to both sides of the discussion. Those overseeing the development of the proposed ordinance hope to balance the rights of animal keepers and their access to food cultivation with the concerns of neighbors who express concerns about how livestock may impact their quality of life.
Any changes to the current policy would also have to be oriented towards protecting public health, welfare and safety, Jeffrey said.
“The goal is to create objective standards that are based on best practices and recommendations for animals coupled with zoning standards to allow for the practice while also protecting the integrity of neighborhoods and mitigating impacts to surrounding neighbors,” Jeffrey said.
City planners are currently reviewing public input on the urban livestock issue and using it to formulate draft ordinances. Right now, they’re considering an approach permitting certain kinds of small fowl, like chickens and ducks, but not roosters and honeybees on residential lots and at schools and other educational institutions.
They’re also considering space requirements that will lead to a good environment for animals while respecting neighbors’ concerns.
Jeffrey believes an overall approach is preferable to designating certain zones of the city as “urban livestock areas” as there is a range of citizens living in many types of neighborhoods who desire to keep bees and farm animals.
The next step after this work will be resuming public engagement.
“We look to do additional engagement with the community-at-large soon, as well as with city departments and officials,” Jeffrey said. “We will use this additional input to incorporate into the ordinances before proceeding to public hearings on the matter, allowing for even more input from stakeholders.”
Residents and stakeholders interested in being part of the conversation can reach out to the Detroit City Planning Commission to be added to the contact list for the next round of public engagement. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (313) 224-6225.