Strolling through the leafy side streets near the Art Gallery of Ontario, John Fischer works his way through the surprisingly complex calculus of urban letter and parcel delivery that will soon play out across Toronto.
Mr. Fischer, who works as a mapping consultant, stops halfway down D'Arcy Street on a cozy one-block stretch between Beverley and McCaul Streets, where he has counted 37 addresses, not including basement apartments.
That one block alone will probably need three new "community mailboxes" (CMBs), he reckons.
Once Canada Post phases out door-to-door service across the country in favour of a new generation of CMBs, every neighbourhood, no matter how dense, will face the same problem: How many of these boxes will be needed – and where will they be installed?
Toronto residents will get their first look at that process next week, when city council's planning and transportation committee considers an initial report on mailbox-location guidelines.
The new mailboxes will have 16 individual slots, and two parcel lockers. Each one measures 77.6 centimetres wide by 50.4 centimetres deep and rests on a concrete pad. Canada Post typically installs them in clusters of three, which translates into an object well over two metres long. At 164 cm tall, it is the height of a medium-sized adult.
"It's narrow and constricted," Mr. Fischer says as he looks around for potential places to park these hefty pieces of street furniture. "You've got hedges over there, the fence here. If they want to put in a box, something's got to go."
Mr. Fischer, who is also a walking activist and member of the Grange Community Association, performed the same analysis on the area bounded by Spadina Avenue, Dundas Street, Queen Street and University Avenue. He counted 300 residential addresses, which would mean 19 boxes located at or near 14 intersections.
But when those estimates are extrapolated to the scale of the city as a whole, the numbers become formidable, indeed. The estimates to date vary widely. Canada Post estimates that it will have to deploy 2,500 to 11,000 CMBs across Toronto, as the Crown corporation ends door-to-door delivery by 2019. But according to the city's staff report, Canada Post between 2017 and 2019 expects 565,784 "points of call" (i.e. individual delivery addresses) to be converted to community mailboxes – a figure that would require more than 35,000 new boxes. Residents who live in basement apartments, duplexes or laneway homes will also have their own slots in the boxes. Just over 22,000 downtown residential addresses will continue to get door-to-door delivery.
The city expects Canada Post to begin installing the mailboxes within two years. How, precisely, the corporation plans to locate these large fixtures is neither clear nor conflict-free, especially in tight downtown neighbourhoods, where sidewalks are narrow and the municipal rights-of-way often extend well into the front yards of individual houses.
The staff report notes that there are already 14,000 pieces of street furniture in the public realm in Toronto and concludes that adding all those additional mailboxes will be "challenging to physically and visually integrate."
While most Toronto homeowners have not tuned in to this looming challenge, some councillors are already worried. "My concern is that [the deployment] doesn't seem to be going very well across the country for Canada Post and other large municipalities," says Willowdale Councillor David Shiner, who chairs the planning and growth management committee.
City spokeswoman Jackie DeSouza says planning and transportation officials have flagged several potential concerns ahead of next week's meeting, including traffic disruptions associated with people parking near the new boxes to pick up their mail; sidewalk snow clearance; accessibility for seniors and disabled individuals; implementation costs, and theft.
Mr. Fischer adds graffiti, upkeep and garbage to that list, pointing out that other municipalities have been forced to absorb the cost of cleaning up the discarded junk mail strewn on the ground near mailboxes. (Canada Post has been delivering mail to CMBs in suburban communities across Canada for years.)
Places such as Vancouver face identical problems. "The irony is that the areas where we have the least amount of space will need the most number of boxes," says Jerry Dobrovolny, that city's acting general manager of engineering services for the city. "There are solutions, but they all involve trade-offs."
In recent weeks, Canada Post fought a high-stakes court battle with the City of Hamilton over who gets the final say over the placement of the mailboxes. The agency sought to overturn a bylaw that requires it to obtain a $200 permit per site to install the boxes on municipal land. A Hamilton judge Thursday ruled that Canada Post has the legal right to determine where to locate the new boxes. In the aftermath of the fight, a spokesperson stressed that the corporation wants to collaborate with municipalities on the deployment.
"The current boxes likely won't work in this area," says Jon Hamilton, referring to dense downtown neighbourhoods. He adds that Canada Post expects to save $500-million by cutting door-to-door service.
Mr. Hamilton also says that Canada Post has no plans to eliminate delivery service to businesses and street retailers, and he points out that about half of Toronto residents will not be directly affected by the rollout because they live in apartment buildings with centralized mailrooms, which will not experience any change in service levels.
But in neighbourhoods with large numbers of detached and semi-detached residences, "we're going to have enormous boxes everywhere," says Trinity-Spadina Councillor Mike Layton, who, like Mr. Fischer, calculated the number of boxes he can expect on his block-long street – four – just south of Christie Pits, where most of the houses have frontages of just 12 to 14 feet.
"[Canada Post] really has to look at what this is going to do to the tightest communities in Canada," Mr. Layton said. "It just doesn't work."
In terms of finding potential locations, some ideas that have been bruited include the side flanks of larger buildings on street corners or even park entrances.
Ms. DeSouza says there is no consultation plan in place at present between the city and Canada Post. "I don't think they're there yet."
At next week's committee meeting, councillors will like ask the city or the Crown corporation to undertake some kind of formal public consultation process. Indeed, both Mr. Shiner and Mr. Layton want residents to have a say on where these boxes will be situated, not least because their presence could affect both property values as well as public space.
On his walk around the side streets off Dundas, Mr. Fischer points to a pair of graffiti-defaced mailboxes, and then pauses at a large brown utility box in front of a house on Beverley. "This Bell box, it's ugly," he says. "We're at the tipping point and we shouldn't go beyond that by adding more obstacles and urban blight."