The Plant: Meat-Packing Plant Turned Sustainability Incubator

How a refurbished building has now become Chicago’s model for the future of circular economy programming.

Sustainability @DePaul
4 min readMar 22, 2023


By Mayra Shuja

John Edel, owner of The Plant, introduces the different businesses the building holds and the concept of a circular economy.

As a graduate student enrolled in the Sustainable Urban Development Program at DePaul University, I have always wondered how systematic and collective change begins.

On January 28th, 2023, I learned that it can begin with the vision and effort of just one person.

That was the day that I traveled with others in the latest cohort of Chaddick Scholars on a day trip to explore Chicago. The Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, housed within DePaul’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, provides professionals and students with a place to connect and share knowledge on urban planning through events, study tours, workshops, and research.

It was on our latest study tour that we were introduced by our professor and guide, Professor Joe Schwieterman, to The Plant.

The Plant is a former meat-packing plant in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. The exposed iron bars, cold and bare concrete walls, and chipped floor tiles give voice to the building’s past. A complex and highly interrelated system, it has since been converted into a vertical farm and business incubator and functions as a collaborative community of small food businesses that strives to share resources. The building has come full circle from a slaughterhouse to a hub for 19 small sustainable green businesses. As we toured the building, I noticed that even the small interventions, like green creeper plants and the sound and sight of fountains, reflect a reimagined built environment and a better future.

John Edel explaining the history of the building to DePaul students.

What grasped my attention the most was learning how John Edel, the owner of this innovative building, made an intentional career shift from the visual arts to developing and running a sustainable business incubator. While this career change may seem rather odd, I recently listened to a podcast called Study the Humanities, which featured young professionals talking about how the knowledge and skills they gained through fields not typically seen as professionalizing helped them expand their career options. Edel is a fantastic example of such a situation; he was able to consciously change professions, apply knowledge gained from his background in the arts and humanities, and pioneer The Plant.

Edel’s work at The Plant is also an example of weaving together systematic and collective change. Listening to him talk, it struck me how landlords and landowners can take responsibility and use their power to promote a sustainable future. In this case, Edel is providing the resources and infrastructure needed for these businesses to thrive, including access to affordable space, shared assets, and knowledge.

The Plant exemplifies systemic change because it improves upon “business as usual” by promoting a circular economy. For those unfamiliar, The circular economy is a model that aims to reduce waste and create a closed-loop system for resources and materials by promoting energy efficiency, minimizing resource depletion and prioritizing “reuse, refurbishment, and recycle,” which is a fundamental shift from the traditional linear economy model of “take, make, dispose.”

The Plant is also an example of collective change because these collaborations lead to more innovation, efficient processes, increased success, and improved communication. Hence Edel and the Plant support both kinds of change. Systematic and collective change can begin through individual efforts.

According to Professor Schwieterman, The Plant was selected as the first site visit for the Chaddick Scholars Candidates, not only due to its unique nature, but also because it aligns with the Institute’s mission to promote efforts to make cities better. The Chaddick Institute itself has a prominent sustainability agenda and The Plant is a perfect example of how sustainability initiatives can improve cities. Of these site visits, Schwieterman said, “We like to go to neighborhoods which students aren’t that familiar with and often have populations that could use the benefits from improved planning.”

DePaul Professor Joe Schwieterman giving Chaddick Scholars a tour of the Plant.

The whole trip was such an experience. From touring the Plant, to exploring Bronzeville, to immersing in the smells, sights, and sounds from the nearby chemical plants. We DePaul students experienced and learned much collectively and collaboratively.

Meeting John Edel was a personal highlight, as he showed me that it is indeed possible for individuals to jumpstart systemic and collective change, even with complex challenges like sustainability.

Change can even start with you.

Mayra Shuja is a 2022–23 Student Fellow with HumanitiesX and a graduate student in Sustainable Urban Development at DePaul University.



Sustainability @DePaul

DePaul University’s Experiential Humanities Collaborative