The Globe and Mail's B.C. bureau is spending the summer examining how Vancouver's increasing density is shaping the city and its residents.
Purging is a routine for Lynne Polischuik. Whenever the Vancouver designer brings a new dress, shoes, book or any other item home to her West End Vancouver condo, she gets rid of whatever the new item is replacing. The old items are packed up and sent to charity.
Ms. Polischuik says this purging routine has been a necessity for keeping her 1,008-square-foot condo from getting too crowded. A $40-per-hour professional organizer Ms. Polischuik hired to provide advice has also helped. "It's one in, one out, which I have to do because if I don't, I'll start accumulating things again," she said.
A condo of more than 1,000 square feet may sound like a lot of room for the single Ms. Polischuik, but she notes that her rental space has to serve as both home and office. "If my place feels cluttered or disorganized, it affects me immensely. It causes me stress," says the 37-year-old Ms. Polischuik. "All my friends have anxiety about this. I don't know anyone here who isn't in a similar purge state like I am or isn't contemplating getting on that train.
"Everybody I talk to stresses about this, being organized."
There's a lot of stress to go around. One of the consequences of dense living – the trend that has seen people living in smaller spaces – is that there is less room to store items. This is an issue in many urban areas, but especially germane in the Vancouver region, which has the lowest proportion of single detached houses in Canada, about 29 per cent.
Most of the people interviewed for this story grew up in conventional detached homes with yards and lots of interior space to store and display whatever they needed. Now that's all a memory. Today's reality largely means finding space to store and show off possessions. It's a series of space-oriented questions: Where to store the winter clothes in summer? What about the skis? Suitcases? And what happens to a personal library of books accumulated over many years? What if there isn't an on-site locker? You can pay for an off-site locker, but is it worth the ongoing expense?
"One friend said she feels like her space is a storage space as opposed to a living space," Ms. Polischuik says.
Sociologist Nathanael Lauster, who has explored the fate of the single-family home in his book The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City, has been intrigued by the space issue, and says it has been an ongoing concern in large cities.
"Effectively, people are priced out of large spaces, especially if you are wanting to live close to the city centre," Mr. Lauster, who is based at the University of British Columbia, said in an interview. "In the context of a place like Vancouver, where can you go that's affordable? You're really getting pushed out to find somewhere where you could find lots of space that's affordable."
Mr. Lauster has been involved in some research on hoarding. "People in Vancouver identified as hoarders often use the excuse, 'I wouldn't be called a hoarder if I had a house.'"
Greg Zayadi has had a perspective on the issue as senior vice-president of Rennie Marketing Systems, the venerable development company founded by Bob Rennie. The company is now working with 25 to 35 developments coming to market, largely in the Lower Mainland, over the next two years.
Prospective buyers, he says, ask about storage options, whether there are storage lockers, and whether they can buy more storage.
"It's more relevant today than ever before," Mr. Zayadi said in an interview.
Despite the angst, however, he doesn't think space is a deal breaker.
"It's the age-old adage of location, location, location. People are buying based on location, price, and then the home itself. One of the most important things is a good floor plan. Is it a liveable home," he said in an interview.
"As you move through those things, you are already 80 per cent of your way through the buying decision. The last thing is, maybe, amenities – maybe storage, maybe appliances."
Many people moving into dense living, he said, are reconciling themselves to a change in lifestyle that includes less space for storing their goods. That change in lifestyle can be durable. Condos, he says, have evolved from being a transitional form of housing into a more permanent living option.
"It doesn't matter whether you're 20 or 80. You're making the decision to live – call it more simply, call it more urban. People are looking for more freedom from a home, shall we say. With that, there's an adjustment of lifestyle."
And that includes space, he says.
Vancouver resident Adrian Crook has reflected on this issue with his 5 Kids, 1 Condo blog. The math of his life is five children, aged five to 11, in a 1,053-square-foot condo with two bathrooms. It helps, he says, that he lives as a minimalist in terms of possessions.
It's a far cry from the big house in Port Moody where he grew up. "Our generation and the generation below us, which would be millennials, don't really have the financial resources to warehouse stuff, and we can't really afford to buy the things in the first place," he said. "To some extent it is out of necessity that we live smaller and with less things.To another extent, we don't really want those things to begin with."
He added, "We have to adapt to the space we're given. We're never going to have the space we need."
For Ms. Polischuik, the context for dealing with space began with the five-bedroom house in Toronto where she grew up. She fled the cold winters and hot summers of Canada's largest city for the more moderate climate of British Columbia. Before her current home, she lived with a friend in a three-bedroom downtown apartment. Then, in 2012, she moved into her current home, which she rents.
By then, she had accumulated a lot of stuff. "It was this transition from your twenties to your thirties where you want new stuff. You can afford new stuff. You end up with a lot of stuff. You hang on to things because you don't know if you're going to be able to replace them."
At a certain point, things reached a crisis.
"Every closet, every drawer was full, full, full. I couldn't find things. I didn't know what I had any more." The lack of closet and storage space in her apartment, which she describes as typical from what she has seen, made things worse. "For the amount of money we're being asked to pay for condos and spaces in Vancouver, they're not very well-conceived. It almost feels like storage is an afterthought."