From Postal Networks to Community Places


In January 2019, Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Architecture and School of Design launched an interdisciplinary course to provide students from multiple disciplines the opportunity to explore linkages between community scale place-making and the postal system.   

“The United States Postal Service (USPS) is so ubiquitous it is almost invisible,” said Adjunct Faculty Andrew Butcher. “Controlling over 33,000 facilities with over 300,000 vehicles, it is the only entity that services every home in every neighborhood almost every day.”

In 2016 USPS facilities hosted over 2.7 billion unique visitors. As a $70B dollar entity it would list in the top 50 of the Fortune 100 largest businesses. Despite this physical presence, USPS facilities are contracting and operations are radically modernizing in the face of evolving global commerce.

“Even more stark is the minimal coordination and linkage the postal system has with local government and communities,” added Butcher. “Equally surprising is how few communities or local governments seek to engage the postal service to align with local real estate, economic development or even public health initiatives. Excess space in postal facilities costs money and can result in facilities diminished performance and eventual discontinuation leaving a hole in a community—disproportionate affecting at risk and vulnerable communities.”

“Historian Winifred Gallagher describes the postal network as America’s central nervous system that binds the nation together and in which all communities are still treated equally,” explained Associate Professor Stefan Gruber. “We were inspired by the vision of the future post as civic commons and eager to rethink what the post’s universal service obligation might mean in the 21st century. Bridging the postal and place-making divide, opens up a space of opportunity for meaningful social innovation.

“Here, our respective expertise in public policies, systems thinking, place making and community engagement, really helped tackling the layered challenges of building community resilience, while trying to save the post.”

During the 16 week elective course, students focused on developing radical imaginations of possible futures for postal places in order to inspire new types of conversations and possibilities between communities and the postal service. The course utilized strategies of community engagement and creative placemaking to provide meaningful input and insights as to “what is possible” relative to the adaptation of Postal facilities and distribution infrastructure.

Throughout the course, students were introduced to the fundamentals of the postal system and infrastructure including the policy, economics and history of the system that has influenced current challenges. On top of that, students also learned the best practices in community engagement, participatory research and social impact evaluation, as well as design thinking for large scale systems change and social innovation. The course also featured guest lecturers with expertise from local community development; city planning; placemaking and national postal policy and history.

Students explored three nearby postal facilities in Wilkinsburg, Homewood and East Liberty/Larimer all near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The recent suspension of Homewood’s postal facility offered a tangible perspective into the implications of closing post offices in a disenfranchised neighborhood. Through exchange with residents students gained specific insights of the community’s broader challenges and hopes. Pairing the long history of neighborhood revitalization plans, with the sudden suspension of basic services such as the post service, illustrates the need for situating any future visions in the everyday realities of community life.

After their research phase, students were charged to research, design and reimagine how the postal system in a transitioning neighborhood can contribute to social, ecological and economic sustainability and serve as a driver for community resilience.

The course culminated on April 26 with the presentation of “Postal Places: A Pittsburgh Forum.” Student teams presented concepts at a first of a kind dialogue between place based stakeholders and postal system experts at a dedicated Pittsburgh Postal Places Forum hosted at Carnegie Mellon University.  Through presentations and a series of interactive sessions students and faculty sought feedback in an effort to help prompt information sharing between the postal and place-making domains.

The student concepts on display were:

  • RePost:  A social enterprise strategy to repurpose wasted postal bulk paper into feedstock for value added products to support women’s health and prompt unique public-private partnerships. 
  • USPS+: A vision for enhanced postal services to integrate with community qualified healthcare clinics and Medicaid to provide subscription based health services via USPS mail carriers and distribution network
  • The New Community Mailbox:  A redesigned cluster mailbox intended to improve social cohesion by reducing door-to-door delivery costs for USPS and reinvesting a portion of savings to finance community improvements.  
  • The Digital Last Mile: Leveraging brand and infrastructure  - USPS serves as a broker for increased broadband internet coverage for underserved communities.  

Guests from place-making domains included representatives from Allegheny County, Benbow Ventures, the City of Pittsburgh, the Forbes Funds, Fourth Economy Consulting, the Hillman Foundation, Metro21 Institute, Omicello Development, The RK Mellon Foundation, Roadbotics, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and the Golden Pillow Project.  

CMU was also honored to host the following representatives from the Postal System and grateful to Nationwide Postal Management and Benbow Ventures for financial support towards the course.

  • David Williams - Vice Chairman, USPS Board of Governors 
  • Kristen Seaver - CIO - USPS
  • Emil Dzuray - Director, Planning USPS
  • Jody Lowe, Manager - Real Estate USPS  
  • Ali Reams - Corporate Counsel, USPS
  • Phil Tabbita - Vice President, American Postal Union Workers
  • Joyce McCutcheon - Association of US Postal Lessors
  • Patrick Donahoe, Postal Realty Trust (Former Postmaster General)
  • Evan Kalish - Postlandia 

“Helping students think radically about new possibilities and bringing together experts from the field in an effort to co-design new visions of the future is in the DNA at Carnegie Mellon University,” said Associate Professor and Co-Instructor Kristin Hughes.  “The fact that this course was hosted at the School of Architecture led by Stefan Gruber Associate Professor of Architecture and Urbanism in collaboration with Andrew Butcher is a testament to the power of interdisciplinary collaboration.”

Visit the Postal Places website >>

Date Published: 
Thursday, May 16, 2019