Original Green Places - South Main

aerial photo of South Main before any buildings were constructed

   This is the first in a series of posts featuring places that exhibit characteristics of the Original Green... this one takes a look at South Main in Buena Vista, Colorado. South Main is intriguing on several counts... let’s look at them all. But first, a bit of background: South Main was founded by the brother-and-sister team of Jed Selby and Katie Urban, who also happen to be world-class kayakers. The urban plan was designed by the acclaimed New Urbanist planning firm of Dover-Kohl of Miami. Here’s Dover-Kohl’s rendering of what South Main will look like at completion. Now let’s look at the Original Green principles South Main embodies: Original Green places are Nourishable, Accessible, Serviceable, and Securable. Original Green buildings are Lovable, Durable, Flexible, and Frugal.

Nourishable Places

bowl of vegetables from South Main gardens in Buena Vista, Colorado

   South Main is sandwiched between Buena Vista’s downtown and the Arkansas River, as you can see in the early aerial construction photo above that I took in 2006. Because it’s conceived as an extension of the urban core of the town, there’s no large-scale agriculture within the boundaries of South Main. But that doesn’t mean that South Main can’t contribute to its own nourishability. See the patch of green just above the river? That’s the beginning of the Town Square, where regular farmers’ markets can deliver local food to the citizens. And lots of food can be grown on each individual home lot, as SmartDwelling I illustrates... see the Kitchen Garden & Green Walls posts. Here’s an article by Katie’s husband Dustin (also a world-class kayaker) about gardening at South Main. And the tomatoes above? They aren’t some stock photo... they’re from Katie & Dustin’s garden!

Accessible Places

bicycle parked in downtown South Main in Buena Vista, Colorado

   South Main, like nearly all New Urbanist places, provides a choice of ways of getting around (not just driving) especially including the self-propelled ways: walking and biking. But South Main goes a step further. The upper right corner of the aerial photo the center of Buena Vista, only a half-mile from South Main’s Town Square. This means that South Main isn’t just accessible on foot or bike to its own residents, but also to the citizens of most of Buena Vista. Because South Main is completely open to all, it also means that everyone can walk, bike, or drive through South Main to the River Park being built on the river.

Serviceable Places

South Main cafe

   Buena Vista has a strikingly high percentage of live/work units in its plan. As a matter of fact, Jed Selby said emphatically on many occasions that “I want every lot in South Main to be a place where someone can work if they want to.” Truly, South Main is becoming a place where you can “make a living where you’re living,” as the Original Green has long advocated. And South Main is serious about this, with several live/work units among some of the first buildings constructed. But Jed & Katie are very sophisticated about this; it isn’t just one-size-fits-all. Rather, they understand that as the character of the street changes from the Town Square to Main Street to side streets and quiet streets in the back side of the neighborhood, the types of live/work units must change to fit the street character. So a classic Live-Above would work best on the Town Square, while an office over the garage might be more appropriate in quieter places.

Securable Places

   South Main illustrates the other half of the meaning of “Securable.” Today, Buena Vista is a sleepy little town where fear for your own safety, that of your family, or the safety of your belongings is far from people’s minds. But because South Main is built with buildings pulled tight to build-to lines rather than sprawled in haphazard fashion, it would be easy in some fearful future (that we hope will never occur) to connect the buildings with frontage walls in order to secure each block. Cities around the world have been built in this fashion for centuries.

The main point of this post is to look at how South Main is creating a sustainable place. But South Main is also doing several things to help people build sustainable buildings, too... here are a few of those items:

Lovable Buildings

town center building with clock tower in South Main, Buena Vista, Colorado

   South Main has, from the beginning, intended that its architecture be lovable. I had the pleasure of consulting with South Main in the early years (and occasionally since then,) and can attest to this firsthand. One of the first things Kenny Craft and I did was to catalog a wide range of Colorado high-country architecture to find out what had been valued the longest and loved the most. Two of the towns (Salida and Leadville) were so comprehensively good that I catalogued every good building for the Catalog of the Most-Loved Places. Look for those volumes to be posted shortly. Since then, South Main has implemented a strong principle-based Town Architect review process, with Kenny acting as Town Architect.

Durable Buildings

   South Main is located in Colorado’s “Banana Belt,” a central valley two miles above sea level that is spared the coldest weather. But because of its altitude, the sunlight is more intense... especially because rainy days are so infrequent. Buildings built in normal American suburban fashion don’t last very long here without serious maintenance. South Main, as a result, has spent years looking at the best materials and methods for their building exteriors that will make them the most durable, because how can you call something “sustainable” if it doesn’t last?

Flexible Buildings

live-work building in South Main, Buena Vista, Colorado

   Because of Jed’s insistence that all buildings in South Main be able to be places where you can work if you want to, the design team has looked more intensely than most places at ways that buildings can switch from a house to a shop and back again... either completely, or only some of the rooms. To do this, it’s necessary to focus on being a good building, not just being a good house or a good shop. For example, there is a design for a tiny 523 square foot house just off Main Street at the corner of a side street and an alley that perches over a single-car garage facing the alley. But as South Main grows and thrives, the boarding between the structural piers can be removed and the garage will transform into a tiny shop. How do I know this? It’s my place... I feel strongly enough about what they’re doing at South Main that I’ve bought a lot there, and hope to build in the near future.

Frugal Buildings

corner store in South Main, Buena Vista, Colorado

   South Main has been committed from the beginning to building extremely frugal buildings. Here are their founding principles. You’ll notice that sustainability in general and green building in particular are 2/3 of the total. But while they meet several state and national green building standards, their understanding of sustainability is far more than Gizmo Green. Just as we’ve advocated here from the beginning, they start by conditioning buildings naturally as much as possible, then using mechanical conditioning just to bridge the gap... an increasing amount of which will be solar-powered. And because frugality isn’t just about energy, but is about being frugal with all our resources, they looked closely at the resources they had on-site and found that South Main is built on an alluvial plain filled with rocks laid down as the river changed its course over the centuries, just below the topsoil. So rather than burning gas to cart them off to a landfill somewhere, they’ve used countless of them in many ways, from the great boulders of the terrace wall of the town square to foundation walls of buildings.

   So those are some of the things South Main is doing... do you know of other places that are doing as much to be an Original Green Place? If so, please let me know and I’d like to do a story sometime about them, too... thanks!

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Saturday, December 12, 2009 - 01:07 PM


Interesting article!  Looks like a nice place.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009 - 10:53 AM


South Main is as attractive and innovative as it sounds in the article! It's walkability makes friends of neighbors which I witnessed during the five day vacation I spent in the community. Not only does the community harken back to days of sustainability and green living, it also takes one back to a way of life where people know and trust each other and look out for one another. A very special place, indeed!


© Stephen A. Mouzon 2018