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June 28, 2017

25 Dorrance St | Providence City Hall | Sophie Weston Chien, BArch ‘20

by sophiechien

Last week I started my Maharam Fellowship, working in Providence City Hall in the Mayor’s Center for City Services (MCCS). My project is focused on how the 311 system can be made more approachable and effective on multiple scales.

MCCS Diagram png-04This is an initial mapping I did to understand the current system of constituents, city services, and MCCS.

For those who don’t know, 311 is the typical (at least typical of American municipalities) phone line for contacting city government. It’s the non-emergency line for calling when the sidewalks are cracked or there is graffiti on a school wall. As a symbol, it is typically understood as inefficient, unreliable and cumbersome.

Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 9.59.28 AM311 is available via website, app, in person or online.

Jorge Elorza, Providence’s current mayor, rebooted Providence’s 311 system in March 2016 after some starts and sputters. Using new software and a new team, over the course of 15 months 311 has seen over 17,000 cases registered and completed. Part of that new team is the Director, Andy Jacques, who was actually the Assistant Director for Leadership Programs at RISD (my boss there too) and my strongest ally.


This is a cheeseball picture of City Hall, which if you didn’t know is adjacent to Kennedy Plaza.

311 functions extremely well as a one to one recorder of one constituent addressing one problem (such as a pothole or sidewalk), but I’m interested in using the recognizable and effective 311 infrastructure and applying it to larger city services.

As I settle into City Hall, my first impression is the high-spirited and infectious energy of the place. One of my first days I went on a tour and everyone was so genuine and excited for me to join the team, in a way that I was not expecting of municipal government. The current administration is super young and eager to leave behind the past (see Crimetown) and embrace the opportunities the city of Providence has; as a liberal powerhouse with a large immigrant population, great universities and old, but historic infrastructure. In fact, City Hall is home to the third largest self-supporting stairs in the world (said a Public Property employee to me once)

DSC_5704gfx flat3sh-L

Photo for reference by Liane Brandon (pretty impressive)

My task the first two weeks is finding my way into the project by absorbing the various facets of the MCCS office and connecting with outside offices such as Innovation, Planning and Development and Public Works. I am trying to strike a balance of understanding the systems but not accepting them because my strength in this position is as an outsider.

MCCS Map-03

City cases as a network of infrastructure projects? Stay tuned…

In my next few weeks, I hope to develop more relationships with municipal offices and focus on constituent outreach, learning about their perceptions of the 311 service and how it can be improved and expanded.


Being in government, I am learning a little politicin‘ and have been able to meet with various directors and leaders around the city and state. Today I actually got to have lunch with the Secretary of State, Nellie Gorbea, who is the first Hispanic person to be elected to statewide office in New England. 

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