[Edit 09/07/11 @ 5:03PM EST]  It has been mentioned in the comments, and elsewhere, that while the Postal Service is facing a solvency problem, that problem is the direct result of Republican-led legislation that burdens them with excessive overhead. I completely agree with this sentiment. The 109th Congress, passed the “The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act” in 2006, which you can read in full here. The law requires that the USPS  pre-fund 75 years-worth of pensions, and prohibits them from selling  goods that are not directly used for sending letters and packages. I suggest you read more about this legislation here and here. I encourage all of you do to your own research and post what you find in the comments.]

galveston federal building

Photo Credit: Wikipedia – The Galveston Federal Building, built in 1937, is a multi-purpose building with many different government agencies. Don’t bleed the Post Office dry, make it a 21st Century Civic Center

Reading the news lately, makes it seem as though the Post Office is giving its final economic death rattle. Post Master General Patrick Donahoe spoke at a Senate hearing yesterday, and according to the Christian Science Monitor:

Donahoe reiterated a list of cost-cutting measures he has been proposing in recent months to erase the agency’s deficit, which could reach up to $10 billion this fiscal year. They include eliminating Saturday mail delivery, closing as many as 3,700 postal locations, and laying off 120,000 workers – nearly one-fifth of the agency’s work force. (This doesn’t include another 100,000 jobs lost to attrition that the agency does not plan to replace, for a total of 220,000 lost positions.)

These  are  disgraceful solutions to what could be considered an exciting opportunity to innovate. The Internet is being blamed for many of the Post Office’s problems, and it is safe to say that email has put a significant dent in their revenues. But revenues are only half the story. Expenditures are equally important. Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck in their book Suburban Nation relay a conversation with a former (unnamed) Postmaster General who explained that most of our postage goes to the gas for the trucks and vans that carry mail to the suburban fringes of municipalities. Indeed, the USPS has the largest civilian truck fleet in the world. In an era of austerity, we need to look for ways to reduce spending while maintaining affordable services. I just think we need to spend less money on machines, and more on people. The internet can help us do this.

This is not completely my idea. Planning students have been writing masters theses on these sorts of projects for at least a decade. But they have not been noticed because it requires a certain change in how we do business. The first (and most drastic) step is to suspend door-to-door mail service. First class mail can be scanned and delivered to a registered private email address. Packages are to be delivered to Neighborhood Package Centers or NPCs and kept in individual lockers. Residents receive notification via cell phone or email that a package has arrived and they are to pick them up in a specified locker with a generated key code.

The Neighborhood Package Center could become the centerpiece of Augmented American Civic Life. During my short stint as an intern in the Sarasota County planning department under Peter Katz I wrote a white paper on the subject. By suspending door-to-door services, you generate considerable traffic (and buying power) in specific locations where the NPC is built. These locations become the areas of economic revitalization that we need the most. NPCs will work best in dense walkable neighborhoods which, are also the neighborhoods that need the most help. Rural and suburban neighborhoods can take back vacant Wal-Mart storefronts and use them for the civic good.

Photo credit: Wikipedia - The Downtown Troy, NY post office was built in 1931 at the beginning of the Great Depression. Adjacent vacant buildings could serve as a great addition to a fully-functioning NPC. It is a beautiful civic building that has its own lengthy wikipedia page.

Neighborhoods will harness the economic power of Amazon and eBay and capture them in the very brick and mortar of their downtowns. Businesses that cannot do business on the internet (think coffee shops, restaurants, gyms, hair salons, etc.) will take advantage of the increased traffic the NPC provides and setup shop nearby. This is also an opportunity for new business models.With refrigerated lockers, residents can order groceries on the internet and pick them up within several hours. Entire virtual farmers markets can happen, and local retailers can drive the short distance to place their goods in the centralized NPC.

Letter carriers could be the employees of new 24-hour federal internet-enabled civic centers. The NPC has the potential to augment our downtowns and build necessary social capital that communities need. It also means contracting with companies to offer every citizen some kind of cell phone access to tell them when they have a new package. Let us take this opportunity to eliminate the digital divide as well. We can reinvigorate our downtowns by improving our digital infrastructure. When neighborhoods come together to pool their resource, we create thriving local economies that are the basis for a strong union. It is clear that the current incarnation of the Postal Service is an unsustainable business model. Let us see this as an opportunity to do something truly innovative, and not put more people out of work.