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.

 
 
 
 

Self-driving cars may be safe – but they could still prevent walkable, liveable communities

A self-driving car, driving itself. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I was cycling in a bike lane when a car hit me from behind. Luckily, I suffered only a couple bruised ribs and some road rash. But ever since, I have felt my pulse rise when I hear a car coming up behind my bike.

As self-driving cars roll out, they’re already being billed as making me – and millions of American cyclists, pedestrians and vehicle passengers – safer.

As a driver and a cyclist, I initially welcomed the idea of self-driving cars that could detect nearby people and be programmed not to hit them, making the streets safer for everyone. Autonomous vehicles also seemed to provide attractive ways to use roads more efficiently and reduce the need for parking in our communities. People are certainly talking about how self-driving cars could help build more sustainable, livable, walkable and bikable communities.

But as an urban planner and transportation scholar who, like most people in my field, has paid close attention to the discussion around driverless cars, I have come to understand that autonomous vehicles will not complement modern urban planning goals of building people-centered communities. In fact, I think they’re mutually exclusive: we can have a world of safe, efficient, driverless cars, or we can have a world where people can walk, bike and take transit in high-quality, human-scaled communities.

Changing humans’ behavior

These days, with human-driven cars all over the place, I choose my riding routes and behavior carefully: I much prefer to ride on low-speed traffic, low-traffic roads, buffered bike lanes or off-street bike paths whenever possible, even if it means going substantially out of my way. That’s because I’m scared of what a human driver – through error, ignorance, inattention or even malice – might do to me on tougher roads.

But in a hypothetical future in which all cars are autonomous, maybe I’ll make different choices? So long as I’m confident self-driving cars will at least try to avoid killing me on my bike, I’ll take the most direct route to my destination, on roads that I consider much too dangerous to ride on today. I won’t need to worry about drivers because the technology will protect me.

Driverless cars will level the playing field: I’ll finally be able to ride where I am comfortable in a lane, rather than in the gutter – and pedal at a comfortable speed for myself rather than racing to keep up with, or get out of the way of, other riders or vehicles. I can even see riding with my kids on roads, instead of driving somewhere safe to ride like a park. (Of course, this is all still assuming driverless cars will eventually figure out how to avoid killing cyclists.)

To bikers and people interested in vibrant communities, this sounds great. I’m sure I won’t be the only cyclist who makes these choices. But that actually becomes a problem.

The tragedy of the commons

In the midsize midwestern college town I call home, estimates suggest about 4,000 people commute by bike. That might not sound like many, but consider the traffic backups that would result if even just a few hundred cyclists went out at rush hour and rode at leisurely speeds on the half-dozen arterial roads in my city.

Technology optimists might suggest that driverless cars will be able to pass cyclists more safely and efficiently. They might also be directed to use other roads that are less clogged, though that carries its own risks.

But what happens if it’s a lovely spring afternoon and all those 4,000 bike commuters are riding, in addition to a few thousand kids and teenagers running, riding or skating down my local roads? Some might even try to disrupt the flow of traffic by walking back and forth in the road or even just standing and texting, confident the cars will not hit them. It’s easy to see how good driverless cars will enable people to enjoy those previously terrifying streets, but it also demonstrates that safety for people and efficiency for cars can’t happen at the same time.


People versus cars

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where driverless cars can’t get anywhere efficiently – except late at night or early in the morning. That’s the sort of problem policy scholars enjoy working on, trying to engineer ways for people and technology to get along better.


One proposed solution would put cars and bicycles on different areas of the streets, or transform certain streets into “autonomous only” thoroughfares. But I question the logic of undertaking massive road-building projects when many cities today struggle to afford basic maintenance of their existing streets.

An alternative could be to simply make new rules governing how people should behave around autonomous vehicles. Similar rules exist already: Bikes aren’t allowed on most freeways, and jaywalking is illegal across most of the U.S.

Regulating people instead of cars would be cheaper than designing and building new streets. It would also help work around some of the technical problems of teaching driverless cars to avoid every possible danger – or even just learning to recognize bicycles in the first place.

However, telling people what they can and can’t do in the streets raises a key problem. In vibrant communities, roads are public property, which everyone can use for transportation, of course – but also for commerce, civil discourse and even civil disobedience. Most of the U.S., however, appears to have implicitly decided that streets are primarily for moving cars quickly from one place to another.

There might be an argument for driverless cars in rural areas, or for intercity travel, but in cities, if driverless cars merely replace human-driven vehicles, then communities won’t change much, or they may become even more car-dependent. If people choose to prioritise road safety over all other factors, that will shift how people use roads, sidewalks and other public ways. But then autonomous vehicles will never be particularly efficient or convenient.

The Conversation

Daniel Piatkowski, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.