Building on our history of adaptive and creative reuse, we're turning a former firehouse into a center for circular economy programming.
Plant Chicago is located in a former firehouse at the corner of 45th and Marshfield in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. From approximately 1908 to 1978, the building served as a Chicago Firehouse for truck company #33. More recently, it was used for a variety of light industrial purposes, including suitcase manufacturing. Prior to Plant Chicago moving in, the building was vacant for over 3 years.
The Firehouse features shared-use indoor growing spaces for plants and fungi, indoor and outdoor classrooms, maker spaces, a teaching kitchen, and community meeting/event space. It will also serve as a hyper local center to collect materials that don't get recaptured in Chicago.
Plant Chicago was founded in early 2011 as the anchor tenant of The Plant,* a collaborative community of food businesses collectively revaluing “waste”. In the early years of this place-based project, Plant Chicago worked closely with the for-profit developer/owner to slowly adapt an abandoned former pork processing facility. Plant Chicago built indoor and outdoor farms, including the iconic aquaponic farm and indoor mushroom farm. Plant Chicago also developed and managed the marketing, education, volunteering, research and outreach components of the project, engaging thousands of visitors from all over the world through tours, workshops, and special events and capturing an even larger audience through social media channels and international presentations. These early years saw a flurry of media attention focusing on the “closed loop” concept of the project, such as fish waste serving as an input for indoor farms and brewers waste as an input for growing mushrooms.
By 2015, Plant Chicago had transferred many of its spaces to other early stage for profit entrepreneurs. Plant Chicago kept the aquaponic farm, but redesigned it from a production focused space to be a tool for education and research. Around the same time, Plant Chicago piloted a variety of other programs, including hands-on STEM education programs for schools, a year-round farmers market, and collaborative research projects with small businesses and local research institutions. These programs were developed to ensure that the organization and the project provided tangible benefits to the surrounding Southwest Side community.
By 2018, the years of work began to pay off, and the work of the nonprofit was not as necessary to support the project. Over our 8 years, Plant Chicago provided workshops and tours for over 60,000 people! Our work provided direct benefits of over $500,000 to the small business community co-located in the facility, and many thousands more in indirect benefits. Numerous Plant Chicago volunteers and interns went on to work for businesses at The Plant and some even started their own! From 2015-2019, the farmers market grew from a single fold out table to a year-round event featuring over 20 vendors and up to 600 visitors per market, while also matching thousands of dollars of locally grown produce for low income households. Our hands-on workshops for schools averaged 3,600 youth/year and close to 30% of our programs were offered for free to groups that could not afford a fee. Ever collaborative, Plant Chicago worked on over two dozen research projects, many in partnership with local academic research institutions. It is important to note that successes were made possible with the help of thousands of volunteers over the years, who worked alongside a small and passionate Plant Chicago staff, a visionary developer, and a host of innovative entrepreneurs.
Plant Chicago started looking for another location to support our mission to cultivate local circular economies, as well as our vision for circularity to bring equity and economic opportunity to all residents. At the end of 2019 Plant Chicago moved to an historic firehouse in the heart of the Back of the Yards community. The Plant is now composed entirely of small for-profit businesses. While not all of the closed loop concepts have been sustained or realized, the fact that a group of small businesses can survive and continue to evolve is a huge success for everyone involved. It will be exciting to see how this project can continue to foster and grow research, education, and community engagement. All of Plant Chicago’s programs, such as aquaponics, mycology, general public workshops, or K-12 education, can still be found just a few blocks away at Plant Chicago’s new home at The Firehouse.
The Firehouse is already offering up new ways to engage the public in cultivating local circular economies. In 2020, despite the challenges of the global pandemic, Plant Chicago re-launched the farmers market in Davis Square Park, opened up our year-round marketplace, offered subsidized local food boxes, piloted the first shared use “indoor victory garden”, and began accepting food scraps for composting from neighbors.
*The Plant is a building owned by for-profit developer Bubbly Dynamics (John Edel, the sole proprietor of Bubbly Dynamics, is also the founder of Plant Chicago).