Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Flame cooking in the open air should be so simple. And yet.
Dear CityLab: I don't have a backyard, but I want to grill. Can I cook up some burgers on my balcony?
Maybe. It depends on where you live and what type of grill you have.
The International Fire Code stipulates that "open-flame cooking devices shall not be operated on combustible balconies or within 10 feet of combustible construction." That's a good place to start: Definitely don't try to cook kebabs next to a building with, say, wood siding. But beyond that, there's no hard-and-fast decree. In practice, grilling regulations are specific and highly varied.
Take, for example, New York. The Department of Buildings says no to fire escape grilling under any circumstances (after all, those rickety structures have to be empty in case of an emergency evacuation). But the DOB gives the green light to grilling on balconies, rooftops, and terraces—depending on the type of grill you use. Charcoal grills are relegated to a terrace or backyard, while electric grills are permitted on balconies and roofs. Propane grills are prohibited except in cases where they're in the backyard of a single- or two-family dwelling, such as a brownstone.
The Fire Department of the City of New York adds that all propane grills must be at least 10 feet away from buildings and deck railings, and out from under eaves and overhanging branches.
Meanwhile, Chicago doesn't have any regulations about outdoor grilling, except a similar policy banning propane grills around multi-unit buildings. Unlike NYC, Philadelphia does permit charcoal grills on the roof, as long the building is only a one- or two-family home.
So how do you sort it out? Where you can grill is ultimately up to your local fire department, says Owen Davis of the National Fire Protection Association. Fire departments have the jurisdiction to regulate on a city-by-city level. Your best bet is to check with yours.
Another option is to forgo at-home grilling and use one of the stations at a public park. Consult your local parks department to find out which ones have barbecues and whether a permit is required. The heat is likely to burn off most of the truly grimy germs, but if you're still grossed out, try cooking wrapped foods, such as corn-on-the-cob with the husks still attached or shrimp folded in foil.