When Charise Bauman bought her condominium in Toronto she wanted it to be in an established, walkable downtown neighbourhood, have a concierge service and, among other criteria, have good lighting. "Lighting is huge," Bauman says. The 25-year-old hairdresser has a few rules about interior design, including this one: "If you're going to put in a walk-in closet, there better be a light in there."
Women, particularly those in their 20s, have become a dominant force in the condo market, representing approximately one-third of all sales in several Canadian cities. Developers have taken note, and are responding by designing buildings and individual units to suit their tastes and interests, whether it's improving the quality of lighting, or installing security cameras in parking garages, or creating floor plans that maximize storage space.
"It's the fastest growing niche right now," says Louis Conrad Migneault, vice-president of marketing at DevMcGill, a condo development company based in Montreal. "It changes the whole way we present and conceive projects."
Women represent approximately one-third of condo buyers in Montreal, Migneault says. At Tridel, the largest condo developer in Toronto, single women account for one-third of all new sales, says Jim Ritchie, senior vice present of sales and marketing.
The numbers are even higher in some individual projects. In Vancouver, when MC2 condo, located approximately 20 minutes from downtown on the Canada Line, went on sale last year, 61 per cent of the first-time home buyers were female, says Tracie McTavish, president of Rennie Marketing Systems, a condominium sales marketing company.
The trend is borne out nationally: A Royal Bank of Canada poll released last May found that among Canadians planning to purchase a home in the next two years, women were much more likely – 49 per cent compared to 35 per cent – to be first-time buyers than men.
Even when a couple is in the market for a home, marketers and developers assume women are making the buying decisions. "We would never build a display suite as a man cave," McTavish says.
Women will opt for a better location with less square footage over up-and- coming neighbourhoods that offer larger units, Migneault says. Established neighbourhoods not only feel safer, they have more amenities – cafés, grocery stores, shops – within walking distance, another priority for prospective female buyers.
Security is also a key consideration – which means more attention is paid to concierge services, the lighting in and around buildings and the design of parking garages, Ritchie says.
Megan Close, a 28-year-old communications manager in Vancouver, says security was top of mind when she bought her condo in November. She passed on a handful of units in the Kitsilano neighbourhood because there were on the ground floor. "That didn't make me feel safe," Close says.
Buildings with little closet space but storage in the basement were also nixed. "You don't want to put your shoes in the basement," Close says.
"Walk-in closets are a selling point automatically," says Eric Skicki, a real estate agent who specializes in condos in Mississauga, west of Toronto. To target the female market, one condo project under way in Mississauga has designed suites with a washroom that is accessible through the walk-in closet, Skicki says.
Developers are also rethinking amenities like gyms: Relegated to windowless back rooms in older buildings, new condos are featuring workout spaces on upper floors, away from lobby traffic and with windows overlooking the city. "Women are all about the experience at the gym," Migneault says. A Mississauga condo offers Zumba classes in its gym, a strong sign of catering to the female market, Skicki says.
Aesthetically, developers have also had to offer "much more design choice in the suites," Ritchie says – for instance, several different options for kitchen counter tops – and showcase a consistent design aesthetic throughout the unit.
With women becoming such a dominant force in the condo market, catering to their choices – whether it's location, closet space, the gym or lighting – is now paramount.
DESIGNING CITIES WITH SINGLES IN MIND
The rise in the number of solo dwellers in Canada is "very much at the top of mind" for urban planners, says Brian Jackson, Vancouver's general manager of planning and development. More than a quarter of Canadian homes – 27.6 per cent – have just one person living in them, according to census figures released last fall. Compare that to 1971, when only 13.4 per cent of Canadian households were home to someone going solo.
That trend has left urban planners, developers, architects and others grappling with a crucial and multifaceted question: How do you build a city for singles?
SPACES FOR CONVERSATION
Solo living has helped bring us the concept of the vertical suburbs, where you live in close proximity to your neighbours but don't know who they are. Last fall, research conducted by the Vancouver Foundation, a non-profit group dedicated to improving communities, found that social isolation was the biggest concern for residents of metro Vancouver. The city has since launched a task force to tackle the problem.
At least one piece of the puzzle might be something simple. "Benches, believe it or not, in the research I've been doing, make a huge difference in cities by providing a space for people to stop in a public setting," says councillor Andrea Reimer, who spearheaded the creation of the task force.
Vancouver architect Bing Thom has written about the trend of social isolation. Cities need gathering places that foster what he calls "accidental collisions," where strangers can interact.
"To me, it's very important to now create spaces for conversations," he says.
The more whimsy there is in such places – he cites an area
of Robson Street recently kitted out with bean-bag-style seats
as part of a temporary public lounge that Reimer helped create – the more likely it is those places will encourage connection by functioning as social ice breakers.
AVOID SINGLES GHETTOS
As the number of people living alone rises, so too does the fear of creating single ghettos in cities.
"That is a huge issue," says Rollin Stanley, Calgary's general manager of planning, development and assessment.
"If you're building too many buildings with just one type of unit, you don't get that continuum of life cycle, and it's really, really important," Stanley says.
Housing developments need
to offer what Stanley calls a "continuum of housing type," where, for example, there are one-bedroom units for singles, two-bedrooms for couples, and three-bedroom units for families. Such a continuum allows people to put down roots in a neighbourhood and also helps to avoid ghettoizing one particular group of people.
WALK THIS WAY
Creating neighbourhoods that are walkable is key to adapting to the rise of people living alone, says Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto's chief planner.
"We know that younger people and singles are less likely to be interested in owning a car," which means there is an extra emphasis on creating walkability from home to work, she says.
Walkable neighbourhoods, ones where there are a wide array of amenities all within walking distance that create a vibrant public space, have a range of benefits. They encourage a sense of community because you're more likely to see your neighbours, and make neighbourhoods safer because more people are on the street.
"Those places where we've created really clear walkable communities also have become the most desired places by developers to create density," she says, citing Toronto's Liberty Village, Church and Wellesley and Yonge and St. Clair neighbourhoods as examples.
GO TO THE DOGS
Putting jobs, people and transit in close proximity isn't a guarantee for a high quality public realm, says Simon O'Byrne, head of urban planning at Stantec in Edmonton.
Another initiative that helps?
"One of the easiest things to do is to put in dog infrastructure," O'Byrne says. "If you dramatically increase the infrastructure to support a dog population, then you foster a lot more high degree of social interaction, which then builds community, which then gets people feeling connected to the place they live in," he says.
There are now more dogs than children in North America, and it is safe to assume that many of those pooches are owned by people who live alone. That needs to be considered when it comes to the design of cities, O'Byrne says. "We'll put in parks for kids, but do we put in parks for dogs?"