Jo Farrell and India Gort-Lester talk raising children in Manchester city centre
47 floors above the city streets, we met with mother and daughter Jo Farrell and India Gort-Lester in their Beetham Tower home. The pair are raising their young children, Max and Ezra, in the city centre, so we talk to them about family life here and the changing face of Manchester.
What’s life like living in the Beetham Tower?
Jo: This is an oasis for us in the city. It’s busy down there and you can look down across the city and we can join in with it. Living in the tower itself, there is a community here; it’s almost like a vertical village if you like. It’s diverse as it can be on the streets.
I love the panoramic view of Manchester city centre, stretching to the hills beyond, and the everchanging skies and weather. We get amazing sunrises and sunsets! It’s inspirational and the detail in the cityscape is often surprising. We are very passionate about this building and enjoy living in it. I’m the Secretary of the Residents’ Association, and as soon as you come into the front door downstairs, that’s my hallway; that’s how I look at it.
India: Before the baby, I thought it was great, I could go out and be BACK in three minutes [laughs], but since the baby, I haven’t necessarily been based here. I moved in here when I was 13 and I think it’s just a great place to live because when I stand here I can say, ‘what am I going to do today? Oh, I’m going to do that over there’ [laughs]. It’s just a nice feel in the building – you meet people and you say hi.
Jo: I love the fact that you can walk across the city. One of the things about having a small child or a baby in the city is that if you’ve got a good pram, you can get your baby around the whole city and it’s very accessible from that point of view. I love the fact that Manchester is an aspiring city; it’s a hub with an international connection and perspective.
“I think you become more of a citizen when you have children; it embeds you in the community. This is our community. This is our village. We live in this every single day and you do care about what’s around you and it is important.”
How do you feel about living in the city centre?
Jo: My husband Ian is a Mancunian and he’s been very involved with the regeneration of the city and I’m an adopted Mancunian, so we’re committed to the city. When Max came along, we didn’t decide to go out to Hale, Altrincham, Marple, or anywhere else outside the city. This is our home, this is where our child will grow up, as India grew up here from her teens onwards as well.
India: There’s something special about being able to walk down the street at night time and see different things happening and feel like you’re a part of something. I think it can be really lonely when I’m by myself in cities, but I think in a city like Manchester you realise you’re not actually by yourself. In a city like this, they want to include you in things and you feel like you’ve got some sort of acceptance.
What do you think has changed about living in the city centre over the years?
Jo: There’s a lot of building going on post-recession; we’ve got more people coming in to the city to make it there home. If you look out of the window, you can see many cranes that show us something’s happening right the way across the city. Manchesters positioning itself at an international level; in many ways, it’s a place that rivals London. It is a creative and attractive place to live and work.
What aspects of Manchester city centre do you think are good for families?
India: Sometimes when you’ve got kids, you feel like you can’t get out and that’s a very isolating feeling, whereas in Manchester, rather than being trapped at home, it’s small enough to walk around, but big enough to feel like there’s lots to do – even if it’s just going for a walk to get a coffee, it’s important to get out otherwise you’ll all go a bit mad [laughs].
Jo: I think that it’s a very stimulating environment for families. From your doorstep, you can go straight to Manchester Art Gallery, The Whitworth, along with The Manchester Museum and MOSI, or take a tram ride to Salford Quays where The Lowry Theatre has imaginative shows for very young children. There’s a lot of going on virtually every weekend throughout the year. You can do your own small things and go to a café, explore the Northern Quarter, and pop up to Mackie Mayor as well.
What would you like to see changed to make life better for families living in the city centre?
Jo: I think that this is a great place to live, we’re very fortunate, we have a lot of fantastic things on our doorstep, however, having a young child in Manchester I look at things differently now. I’d like the environment – and that’s in its widest sense – to be as safe as possible for our families on the streets of Manchester. I mean for us to be really serious about pollution, for us to do something about the condition of the streets and for us to think again about security and safety as well.
India: You don’t want your child to be exposed to all that pollution. We should consider diesel vehicles in the city, which I think London is currently doing, and I think it’s a serious step forward in cutting down the level of pollution. Also, the amount of times that I’ve been walking out in Manchester and people have ignored the road signs when they’re driving, often because of the one-way systems here; I’ve been nearly run over a couple of times.
Jo: We need to embrace more cyclists in our city and the city has taken good steps to do this, however, if I’m walking down the street with a pram, cyclists often come by down the pavement or take the opportunity to cut through green lights on the pedestrian crossing. Not just to families, but for everyone in the city, I think it would be really beneficial to have a safer, more measured way of moving around, something that cities like Copenhagen have achieved.
Jo: 20 years ago, there were 400 people living in the city centre, now there are 20,000. It would be great to have a city that’s diverse in its age and in every possible way, and for us to take some really positive steps to keep that changing demographic. I’m sure there’s a lot of good work going on, however in the next five years or so, there will be another 20,000 people living in the city. Developers need to have an eye to the people who are actually going to live in those apartments, the families that might start there, how might they keep them there, how might the city keep its people in the city?
Has having your children Ezra and Max changed your perspective on life in Manchester city centre?
Jo: One of the big things that was very important for me when I had Max was to be able to go to the Town Hall, to the Sure Start Children’s Centre there, and meet lots of other mums with their children, but that’s now being relocated to Hulme with the restoration of the Town Hall. I would be glad to see a purpose-built centre within the new Town Hall where those of us who live in the centre can take our children to get support and companionship. There is also no park that’s just for children in the city centre. A park and some green walkways that link up the spaces in the city would be great; we could even have a High Line next to Deansgate station.
India: I used to walk down the street and not have a second thought about anything and now I’m a parent you have to think about other people’s actions because you’ve got something that’s more important than yourself to look after. You care about the streets rather than just thinking ‘that’s not my problem’ – it becomes your problem. You care about making sure that there are things for children, so your child can have that education before school and to give you a break [laughs].
Jo: I think you become more of a citizen when you have children; it embeds you in the community. This is our community. This is our village. We live in this every single day and you do care about what’s around you and it is important.