Industrial Ecology at The Plant, Chicago

Once the setting of Upton Sinclair’s novel about the meatpacking industry, The Jungle, the Union Stockyards neighborhood of Chicago is receiving an injection of vitality in the form of an inspiring redevelopment project called The Plant.

Plant Chicago, the recently formed nonprofit which serves to organize this massive endeavor is lead by Executive Director John Edel who has gone through a variety of careers including chef on a railway car but who has envisioned growing plants indoors since he was a child.

The idea of the plant is utterly revolutionary and simple common sense at once. The building is an ex-meat plant which will become both an urban, vertical farm and a food business incubator, recycling all the food waste it produces (plus an additional 6,500 tons diverted from landfills) into anaerobic digesters which will be responsible for producing all of the heat and electricity needed for the operations of the businesses in this 93,500 square foot space. While vertical farms have typically struggled with how to get sunlight to the vegetables, The Plant seems to have solved this problem by producing, in-house, the electricity it needs to run grow lights. The building will have net-zero energy use and net-negative waste.

Businesses already slated to join Edel in his visionary endeavor include a sustainable brewery, a mushroom farm, an aquaponics company, and a vermaculture worm supplier. The space will also include a certified community processing kitchen which will be available for rent by the day or hour.

The most important and exciting thing about the Plant is its community-based approach. The Plant takes a hands-on approach to rebuilding the  local food economy of Chicago– a step towards fixing our country’s broken food system. Entrepreneurs with even the best ideas will fail to affect change unless they engage and invest deeply in the community in which they’re rooted. In order to allow local producers to market their value-added goods, they need access to a certified kitchen in which to process them. While it’s cost-prohibitive for each operation to have its own processing space, community-supported kitchens (CSKs) can allow small food businesses to become profitable. The Plant is forward-thinking in this way and it’s also engaged in its community in Union Stockyards; they’ve already held two open houses for community members and businesses.

Tellingly, Illinois sees promise in this type of urban redevelopment as well: the Plant recently received 1.5 million in grants from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

So, to recap: a nonprofit housing for-profit businesses; closed loop systems that feed each other; growing food indoors with grow lights powered by decomposing waste; a community centered approach and room to grow! We need more of this in more places. Check it out!

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