February 19, 2014

Socially responsible design and mailboxes

Architecture Matters | Samuel Oboh

Canada Post's decision to replace home delivery with community mailboxes runs counter to advances in socially responsible design.

Soon to be the only G8 country without door-to-door mail delivery service, this initiative fails the aspirations shared by Canadians for an inclusive and caring society with access to the greatest extent possible.

In recent years, we have seen significant effort made in the design of buildings and streets – in communities across the nation – in order to improve accessibility for people with mobility challenges or with sight or hearing impairments.

This is commendable.

Samuel Oboh

Architecture Matters

Samuel Oboh

As a profession, architects advocate for sustainable, pedestrian-friendly cities. Canada Post CEO Deepak Chopra has suggested that a brisk walk to the mailbox would be good for seniors’ health. As admirable as this may sound, for many people, navigating through ice, snow, or traffic to the collective boxes will not be easy or safe.

In reality, people tend to drive to these boxes instead of walking. Canada Post even seems to encourage drive-by pickups. Its Delivery Planning Standards Manual for Builders and Developers advises against locating the boxes beside curb lanes that have no-stopping or no-parking zones.

Having hundreds of neighbourhood residents drive to a mailbox, instead of one Canada Post vehicle making the rounds, will increase gas consumption, greenhouse gases and carbon footprint.

The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC), which advocates for a livable built environment, has warned of the negative impact of group mailboxes on the urban landscape and quality of life of Canadians.

It shares public concerns about placement in built-up areas, city parks and homeowners’ lawns.

There’s no information that shows how this will be done in a way that conforms to good urban design principles or that’s acceptable to anyone.

In newer subdivisions where the community mail boxes currently exist, users are familiar with problems such as idling cars, flyers littering the ground, vandalism, theft and the risk of injury.

A CBC News investigation found Canada Post recorded 4,880 incidents involving community mailboxes, including vandalism, arson and mail theft, between 2008 and 2013.

Safety too is an issue. 

In 2003, the Montreal Gazette reported that a Pierrefonds man, who fell and cracked his skull while collecting mail at an outdoor community mailbox, was awarded $40,000 by the Quebec Superior Court.

The RAIC urges careful, consultative planning and design before launching these unwelcome boxes.

Creative and innovative urban design and architectural solutions will be key to making the post boxes and the spaces around them look and function as well as possible.

This is not simply about attractive and well-designed mailboxes. It is about the public realm around them and how the boxes will integrate into existing neighbourhoods.

Design considers how things work and the user’s experience. How can we make it practical and even enjoyable for people to pick up mail?

How does the new activity fit into the day? How do we mitigate traffic, safety and accessibility concerns?

Municipal politicians are starting to grasp the implications. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson wants to get this issue on the agenda for the next meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which could come at the end of February.

Canada Post said it will mainly install the boxes on government land, including parks, schools and government offices. The Crown corporation has also suggested some community mailboxes could be set up in businesses that are open 24 hours, instead of on the street.

There’s no doubt the impact on streets and green spaces will be significant.

A good design solution will ensure best value, sustainability and avoid additional financial burden to taxpayers.

Samuel Oghale Oboh is the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada's 2nd vice president and regional director for Alberta and the Northwest Territories. Send comments or questions to

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