Take a pan-University approach to sustainability, says report

When it comes to sustainability, York is not starting from zero. It is already engaged in – and has been lauded for – a rich array of academic and practical initiatives. There is still much room for improvement, but this institution is well poised to become a sustainability leader among universities in Canada and globally.

So writes Jennifer Foster (right), environmental studies professor and chair of the President’s Sustainability Council, in a letter to President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri introducing the council’s first report – and 39 recommendations for achieving that leadership goal.

“A pan-University approach to sustainability is essential,” writes Foster.

“Many have worked hard to promote and establish University policies, programs, procedures and practices that are environmentally respectful, socially just and economically sustainable.” Now the University needs to consolidate its approach and articulate a long-term, holistic vision of sustainability that is feasible and builds on York’s strengths, she argues.

Such a pan-University approach to sustainability “should distinguish York as a leader responding to the world’s most pressing contemporary concerns while remaining mindful of the University’s distinct identity,” she concludes.

Left: Mamdouh Shoukri

Shoukri created the President’s Sustainability Council in the fall of 2008 to advise him on York’s sustainability initiatives, projects and practices. The 20-member council, made up of administrators, faculty and students, meets approximately monthly and is expected to produce a yearly report. Its primary focus so far has been developing a framework for understanding the role of sustainability and envisioning directions for advancing sustainability at York. The result is this report.  

"I want to thank the Sustainability Council members for their hard work on this important initiative," said Shoukri.  "When it comes to sustainability, individual action is important, but working together as a community is where you begin to see real results. And that’s just what York University is working towards: making sustainability part of our culture."

In the executive summary of the 30-page report, the council notes: “York’s sustainability achievements to date are a point of pride for the University.”  For example, York earned the highest rank of Ontario universities in the 2010 College Sustainability Report Card. And the Schulich School of Business is recognized as a world leader in integrating social and environmental issues into its MBA curriculum. Sustainability is a guiding concept at York, observes the council, citing initiatives in transportation, operations, energy and waste reduction and the University’s commitment to social justice.

York could do even better, says the council, and goes on to suggest how.

Organized under four sustainability themes – organizational structure, curriculum, social justice and human rights, and campus operations and development – the 39 recommendations in the report reflect the council’s proposed vision statement for sustainability at York:

Our vision of a sustainable University is one that enhances the ecological functioning of its campuses; provides equitable access to opportunities for active engagement in lifelong learning; creates knowledgeable, active and responsible global citizens; and does so within an integrated, long-term framework of full-cost economic and environmental accounting.

Start by creating a University policy statement, suggests the council, which also makes recommendations to: 

  • create a community of campus sustainability ambassadors;
  • include sustainability in more courses and academic programs;
  • develop a York-specific green building and renovation standard;
  • set policies and practices, like a no-idling rule, to reduce vehicle pollution; and
  • support more sustainable practices in campus food service operations.

To improve social justice and human rights, the council recommends more community outreach through schools, bridging programs, bursaries and employment.

The council lists many practical ideas for making operations less wasteful. It recommends, among other things:

  • an “e-waste” recycling program;
  • double-sided printing to reduce paper consumption;
  • reusing office furniture if possible and, if not, selling or donating to the York community and charities;
  • promoting transit use;
  • creating more student common space with access to microwaves, water-bottle refilling stations and sinks;
  • developing a plan for protecting and enhancing York’s natural landscape.

York could begin implementing the recommendations as soon as September.

Visit the President’s Sustainability Council Web site to read the full report.

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer