The rise and fall and rise again of the Incas’ capital city Cusco

Night view of the Qurikancha and Convento de Santo Domingo, Cusco. Image: Martin St-Amant/Wikipedia.

Cities rise and fall for a lot of different reasons. London has been inhabited for over 2,000 years, but it hasn’t just grown continuously. After peaking in the 1930s London’s population shrank until it started bouncing back in the 1980s: millions of individual decisions all affected the city’s life.

The rise, and fall, and rise again of Cusco – capital city of the Incas, in the south west of what is now Peru – Is different. Instead, they are all because of one man called Pachacuti, the empire he established, and the handful of men who destroyed it.

Rise…

Cusco, properly Qosqo in the Quechua language of the Inca Empire, means “the navel of the world”.

Pachacuti knew Cusco was the centre of the world – because from 1438 onwards he had conquered that world, and built Cusco at its centre. Each of the four provinces of the Inca Empire he created pointed to Cusco, and its roads and trails all led towards it, like the UK’s rail network radiates out of London.

Unlike London, though, Cusco had been built in the shape of a Puma. Nothing says “I’m The Boss Here, Okay?” like a city shaped like a powerful ambush predator. Mayors, take note.

Where Cusco is, in case you were wondering. Image: Google.

Unlike most modern cities, Cusco didn’t grow naturally as people moved somewhere sensible to live: instead, the city was designed and built for the specific purpose of being an imperial centre. Rivers were diverted across the valley to provide water; terraces were carved into the surrounding mountainsides to create agricultural land. The city blossomed – and the population boomed, as people moved to be closer to the centre of imperial power.

…and fall…

Just as Cusco’s growth had been dictated by imperial, well, diktat, so would its decline be, too.

I can’t do this bizarre and epochal story justice, but in brief: Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived in 1532 with less than 200 armed men. By the next year they had defeated the Inca military, captured the-then emperor Atahaulpa, ransomed him for a fortune of gold and silver, murdered him anyway, and installed a puppet ruler in his place.

Cusco and the Inca never recovered. Although the Spanish were to face repeated rebellions, their rule was secured, and the city’s population crashed and wouldn’t exceed 10,000 until well into the 19th century. It was only recently that it finally surpassed its pre-Pizarro peak.


…and rise again

For centuries there was little interest in making Cusco important again: Peru’s 20th century industrialisation happened towards the coast, and Lima’s population in particular exploded. But sometimes places become important without anyone consciously deciding as much, and in the early 20th century, something happened near Cusco that was to kickstart its own re-emergence as a major Andean city.

The Inca site of Machu Picchu wasn’t hugely significant for the Inca empire, despite its current fame and glory. But the site was “discovered” in 1911 (actually, locals were already living there to avoid the tax inspectors, but for some reason this doesn’t count), setting off an unexpected boom: archeologists, anthropologists, tourists and the economic development that accompanies all descended.

So nearby Cusco, which had spent centuries in relative obscurity, now became the lost centre of a once globally significant empire, and the city grew rapidly throughout the second half of the 20th century. Peru’s own development and expansion would likely have meant a renewed Cusco anyway – but without the remains of the Inca empire around it, Cusco would be nothing like the thriving city it is today.

Today, it’s one of South America’s most beautiful and interesting cities. You can still see the outline of the puma, hundreds of years later in Cusco’s modern street layout. You can still see the stones of Inca construction with the Spanish buildings layered on top. You can see Cusco’s growth, stagnation and its rebirth all layered on top of one another.

Cities grow and shrink for all sorts of reasons – but not all cities’ stories are as grand or tragic as Cusco’s.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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