A tiny proportion of the near to 3 million residents of Toronto have been keeping hens, in some parts of the city, in the frame of the UrbanHensTO pilot program. Soon it will be decided whether these urban coops become permanent and accessible to the totality of Torontonians. The pilot began in March 2018, initially for a duration of three years, to allow registered households to have up to four hens for the purposes of enjoyment and personal egg production. During the initial wave of the COVID pandemic, the City Council reviewed the UrbanHensTO pilot program from a food security perspective and it later decided its extension for one additional year, which was subsequently prolonged, so the pilot was set to expire on May 31, 2023. In the meantime, extensive stakeholders’ consultation has been requested by the City and a staff report on the future of the program is expected to be released very soon.
Applied to four former City of Toronto wards (today corresponding to some parts of Wards 2, 3, 4, 8, 12, 14, and 19), the rules of the UrbanHensTO pilot program include: hens must be at least 4 months old when acquired (to ensure that is not a rooster, which are prohibited, and to reduce the risk of abandonment once they are no longer cute chicks); and hens are to be kept as pets and for enjoyment and personal egg production only, meaning that selling or donating any part of a hen, its eggs, or manure is not permitted. In addition, coops must respond to specific technical characteristics. Since the beginning of the pilot program in 2018, 307 hens in 102 households have been registered.
The City Council’s Economic and Community Development Committee (ECDC) calls however for this moderate number of users to be drastically increased. In its last review of the UrbanHensTO pilot, it recommended indeed the program to be made permanent and expanded city-wide based on its successful results. With no significant issues, the pilot appears to have provided benefits to participants such as access to fresh local eggs, educational opportunities related to food systems and urban agriculture, and mental health support. Most importantly, with almost 20% of households in Toronto being food insecure, the program – with some modifications- could help fight this major issue.
Some of the highlighted additional requirements to the program refer to administrative, public health and animal welfare questions to resolve – see for example Animal Justice’s position on the matter – but especially to the conditions to ensure its common-good and inclusivity outcomes. As of now, participants are required to have access to an outdoor private yard, apartment dwellers cannot take part and sharing eggs is specifically prohibited. In addition, the average overall cost to participate in the program being about $1,377, the participating households belong to the higher income groups.
In this sense, the ECDC recommends, among other actions to increase equitable access, community hen keeping projects in publicly or privately-owned owned in partnership with the municipality and community or non-profit organizations to help address individual cost barriers and allow residents without sufficient private outdoor space to participate in the program. Such measures would certainly help the UrbanHensTO to include a more circular and sharing economy approach. Other Canadian municipalities that have put in place similar hen keeping programs include Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria or Hailfax.