Deregulate Mailbox Designs to Build Community

Whenever my grandparents returned from a trip, my mother would trundle her seven children for the obligatory visit, where slides were shown and trinkets displayed. I suppose I got the travel bug from those early memories, though I don’t show slides or display trinkets.

Instead, I return with stories about people living their lives and ideas that could be useful back home. When you travel light enough not to require any checked luggage, it’s good to bring home things that don’t take up much room.

I didn’t bring home as many stories from Auckland, New Zealand as I had hoped. I tracked down former Eugene entrepreneur and erstwhile downtown developer Ed Aster, but he didn’t want to talk. Instead, wandering the neighborhoods of Auckland, I picked up an idea that could revive how America once loved its mail.

We know the Post Office has fallen on hard times, because U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio had a media event last week, calling postal leaders slow and stupid. They’re an easy target — I’ve taken pot shots myself — but this remedy focuses intently on the endpoint. Or, to put it more precisely, the hundreds of millions of endpoints reached every day but Sunday.

Mailbox design is not regulated by the government in New Zealand. You’ve probably never bothered to read the United States Postal Service’s mailbox design and engineering guidelines, and I wouldn’t recommend it. Just know that they would more than fill this column space.

Here’s the only part you need: “Customers should discuss the types of approved equipment permitted for their structures with their postmaster before purchasing and installing delivery equipment.” In other words, government will decide what mailbox is right for you.

New Zealand has no such misconceptions. Their government’s attitude is that your mail is your mail. If you want it dropped in a container that’s too small or won’t keep the rain out, you must prefer wrinkled or wet mail. And that’s not their business. They just deliver it. They don’t protect it — or you — from yourself.

As a consequence, everyone’s mailbox is different. Some are sleek cylinders embedded in a concrete wall. Others are tiny replicas of the house behind it, with the roofline opened for mail insertion. I saw one that was a porcelain monster with sharp teeth to protect anything coming near the front door. A “No Solicitors” sign would have been redundant.

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Saunter down the street in New Zealand and you get a feel for the people who live there. Does the mail disappear behind a slot in a wall? Is it stored in a whimsical handmade creation? Is the house number handwritten? Does the mailbox need a new coat of paint? Is it similar to others or outrageously unique?

New Zealand’s postal service offers another layer of self-determination that surely endears it to its citizen-customers. Many mark their boxes (or house-replicas, or toothy monsters) with their mail preferences: “No Junk Mail Please” or “Stamped Letters Only” or “No Circulars.”

Each homeowner has the opportunity to mount a form of self-expression on the edge of the public realm. This edge — biologists call it an ecotone — between public and private is where creativity thrives. It’s where the whole of community meets the assembled parts of privacy.

Our creative edge has been scrubbed smooth by government regulation or private-sector efficiencies. Our trash receptacles have become standardized. We’re sold paper shredders so even the trash inside those uniform curbside containers is not distinguishably ours. And curbside recycling is now so well-adopted, you no longer can walk your dog on trash day and know where all the good people live.

In a day and age when people seldom meet their neighbors, wouldn’t you like to know just a little more about the people who might hear you if you screamed in the night? Before we try deregulating mail service, let’s try giving citizens just a little bit of freedom by deregulating mailbox design. I’m sure people will do amazing things.

If you want Americans to care about their mail service, first give them an opportunity to care about their mail.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.