As populations continue to migrate from rural to urban areas, space is at a premium. Many settlements are becoming ever-more congested – with adequate, affordable housing in short supply and transport systems struggling to serve their respective residents. But as much the conversation about urbanization is about people, it is sometimes also about the animals that come with those people – urban livestock that play a key role at providing sustenance on an individual level, in addition to becoming an avenue for communal trade.
The presence of livestock in urban settlements is far from a new development. Mayan and Aztec civilizations both practiced urban agriculture – within which urban livestock-keeping existed in various forms. In the contemporary context, as land in cities is rapidly transformed to make way for migrating populations, domestic land blends into the agricultural, that in turn blends into land for livestock.
Nairobi, home to almost 4.4 million people today, is often categorized as one of Africa’s fastest-growing cities. But as much as this population expansion has increased the demand of providing housing to people – it is also very much a city of animals as well. Informal settlements in the city are home to both small-scale and large-scale dairy cattle farmers, sustaining a system of trade that sees individual consumers purchasing dairy from small-scale farmers, and processors, hotels, and hawkers purchasing milk from medium and large-scale farmers.
Beef farmers are also plenty in number across the city – but with the added caveat of a more temporary animal existence. Pastoralists from Kajiado – south of Nairobi – frequently find their way into the city during the dry seasons, grazing their animals along the road in search of pastures. Nairobi’s beef cattle population also includes temporary beef fatteners – brought in from rural areas by traders who fatten them for a month in areas near Nairobi’s slaughterhouses.
Mali’s capital of Bamako is similarly home to a significant urban livestock population, and so is Harare in Zimbabwe. The Mozambican capital of Maputo, home to almost 1.2 million people, has 29% of its population that raises livestock. With an increasing demand in places like Nairobi for land and animal source products, urban initiatives will have to sufficiently accommodate this non-human population – an initiative made all the more difficult by the risk of spreading diseases. Zoonoses – infectious diseases that spread from animals to humans – comprise a large percentage of all newly identified infectious diseases, in addition to a significant number of existing ones.
As much as urban livestock places pressure on the space available in an urban settlement, there is also the knock-on effect on the immediate urban ecosystem as a result of having to obtain feed for livestock. Roughage – a type of feed high in fiber – is often sourced from rural and nearby peri-urban areas by cutting wild grasses and shrubs. Frequently, however, feed for urban livestock is sourced from crop residues and household waste. A late-90s Mexico City study, for instance, saw that a significant proportion of cow fodder was made up of waste generated by the city’s large vegetable and fruit distribution centers – products deemed unsuitable for human consumption used to supplement livestock diets.
The same study also outlined how Mexico City’s poultry and pigs – kept in the backyard of family homes – also got their nutrition from the city’s food waste, including left-over tortilla dough and stale bread. Similar livestock food-provision methods are seen in Nairobi, with animals fed market waste – risking the increasing movement of pathogens across the city. At the same time, smaller-scale urban livestock-keeping contributes to the cleaning of local waste, reducing the amount of organic waste that needs to be disposed of, such as a rabbit system in Guatemala City used to dispose of local leftovers and their manure subsequently applied to gardens in the city.
As settlements – especially in the Global South – continue to expand on an industrial scale, their architectural landscape will see rapid development, as attempts are made to meet the high demand for housing in concentrated footprints. But as tower blocks and bungalow residences continue to be built, there will also be the stubborn presence of informal extensions, sheds and enclosures made out of wood, plastic sheets, and corrugated iron, that will continue to be constructed for the keeping of urban livestock. As systems are put in place to create more resilient, human-centered cities, domestic farming animals – the chickens, sheep, goats, and cattle abundantly found in urbanized settlements throughout the globe – will have their own part to play in an increasingly complex urban future.
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