More than a century since cattle were banned from grazing in downtown Seattle, the city council has permitted households to keep pigmy goats and up to eight chickens.

The new rules are part of Seattle’s 2010: The Year of Urban Agriculture campaign, and are designed to encourage food production in areas previously designated residential, industrial and commercial zones.

Land use zoning was introduced to keep rural things out of town, says Richard Conlin, president of Seattle City Council, “but now we’re changing the zoning codes to develop a more integrated ecological approach to the city.

“We also have a couple of horse farms, and I wouldn’t rule out cows, although probably not on the streets.”

In addition to legalising livestock, the new regulations encourage the growing, selling and donation of fruit and vegetables. Seattle has one of the US’s largest community garden programmes with 2,500 plots, and a further 1,000 due to become available this year.

Sites include car parks, hillsides, beside railtracks, rights of way, and land under power lines. There are 1,500 people on the waiting list, and a “dating” service matches landless gardeners with those willing to share.

The council has relaxed planning regulations to let buildings be 15 feet higher for rooftop greenhouses, and is encouraging people to grow food in places where gardening was previously deterred, such as house fronts.

One objective is to shorten the food chain and encourage local farmers to supply the city. To this end, planning permission has been granted for food processing plants, warehouses and farmers markets, which previously required weekly permits with inspection and charges.

“The costs were formidable, but they’ve been reduced by 90 per cent,” says Mr Conlin. The council has also relaxed retail legislation to make it easy for local people to sell their produce.

Some 13 farmers markets now have permanent sites, including one every Tuesday at City Hall. Introduced last year, it did twice the business projected, and this year is proving even better. “Some 10,000 people work within two blocks of the site, so there are lots of customers,” says Mr Conlin.

One of the biggest challenges was persuading fellow politicians that food was a responsibility of local government, along with streets and buildings, he says. “They were used to the idea of regulating restaurants and food banks [to provide meals for the poor and homeless], but once they understood that the drive for this was coming from the community they became very excited.”

An education programme aims to teach children from aged three to prepare and cook food. “Lots of young people don’t understand that milk comes from cows and eggs from hens,” says Mr Conlin.

Children may not start seeing cows in the city, but they should become familiar with hens.

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