As part of its commitment to become one of the most sustainable universities in Canada, York will welcome Mike Layton as its first chief sustainability officer to lead the institution and strengthen its impact in creating a more sustainable and inclusive world.
Layton is a proven champion of climate action and equality with almost two decades of experience leading change in public policy in senior roles both inside and outside government.
From 2010 to 2022, Layton served three terms as the Toronto City Councillor for Ward 11 University-Rosedale, where he championed many sustainability initiatives, including climate action, waste diversion, active transportation, water quality preservation and biodiversity conservation. He also advocated for a variety of social issues, including building affordable and supportive housing, childcare, affordable public transit, investment in reconciliation, negotiating investments in community cultural spaces for Indigenous and Black community groups, poverty reduction funding and establishing Toronto as a fair trade city.
Before politics, Layton was the deputy outreach director at Environmental Defence, a national environmental not-for-profit where he worked on advancing policies to protect farmland and greenspace, protecting sources of drinking water, improving the energy efficiency of buildings, and the growth of renewable energy generation.
Layton has served on a variety of local boards and agencies, including the Atmospheric Fund, the Toronto Parking Authority, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, Exhibition Place, the Canadian National Exhibition Association, Artscape, the Indigenous Affairs Advisory Committee, the Infrastructure and Environment Committee, and the Budget Committee. He has also served on several national and international bodies including the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, the National Zero Waste Council, Great Lakes United, and the Climate Caucus.
A York alum, Layton graduated with a master’s of environmental studies from York University in 2006 with a focus on urban planning and community engagement in environmental decision-making. He also received a bachelor of arts from the University of Toronto in public policy and environmental management. Layton served as an adjunct professor and instructor in the former Faculty of Environmental Studies at York from 2016 to 2018.
Layton is a cyclist, a runner, an avid gardener and adventurous cook who loves pickling and canning. He enjoys playing the ukulele and singing. He lives in Toronto with his wife Brett and their daughters Phoebe and Chloe in a home they renovated to be near net zero.
At York, Layton will lead the Office of Sustainability to integrate sustainability projects across all levels of the campus by engaging the collective community to ensure that sustainability continues to be a critical part of York’s working, teaching, social and cultural spheres of campus.
YFile had an opportunity to talk to Layton about his new role, and his vision for York.
Q: Tell us how you became interested in sustainability?
A: My interest in sustainability grew out of my early childhood experiences in nature. Family camping, canoeing and cycling adventures fostered in me a passion and respect for the natural world around us. As I got a little older, that desire to live in balance with nature expanded to include building a more just and equitable society. While still in high school, I was a councillor at a nature science camp teaching conservation and ecology during the summer and hosted fundraisers to bring awareness about gender-based violence during the school year. I took that passion with me to my post-secondary education first at U of T studying environmental management, then to York for a master’s of environmental studies where I met many inspiring instructors and students who shared my passion and values. After graduation, I had several great mentors at Environmental Defence who gave me the opportunity to pursue sustainability as a career and helped me realize that change is possible. This desire to effect change moved with me to city hall where I used my influence to try to build a more ecological and socially sustainable city. I’m ready to bring that same passion, optimism and energy to York as the first chief sustainability officer.
Q: What excites you most about joining York?
A: What I’m most excited about joining York is for the people and the community. York was built on a strong foundation of social change and I believe York lives these values. I am eager to learn from the many inspiring people in the York community and bring what support I can to their efforts to bring sustainability to the campus, to our community, to their discipline, to their learning, to their research and to the world. The York community is positioned to make great steps towards building a more equitable and sustainable community and I’m excited at the opportunity to contribute to that.
Q: What is your vision for sustainability at York?
A: Sustainability depends on building an inclusive vision of what’s possible. It’s about listening, learning, experimenting and sharing. I believe sustainability starts with our own actions, but that we also have a responsibility to our communities – locally and beyond – to ensure we are all contributing to advancing ecologically and socially sustainable across society. I want to help make York a recognized leader on sustainability that pushes boundaries and has real life impact, but all this starts with us developing a shared vision for the future.
Q: What is the one most important thing York should be doing right now?
A: York already plays a significant role in shaping the dialogue about sustainability locally and beyond. I believe we can build on that strength and reputation to have more impact. We can strengthen how we contribute to local sustainability in our partnerships with the surrounding community and using our campuses as a living lab, and we can elevate our impact beyond the local community in how we prepare our student community to approach sustainability in their future contributions to the world and how we promote, collaborate and focus our research and innovation to address society’s sustainability goals. This means being sustainability champions in our community and Faculties, in our academic work and research and promoting sustainability wherever we can.
Q: What is the first thing you’re going to do when you join York?
A: The first thing I’m going to do when I join York is a lot of listening. A lot of great work is being done – I want to know about it. A lot of great people at York have great ideas – I want to know about them. A lot of great ideas face challenges in implementation – I want to understand those challenges so we can get past them. York has enormous talent and expertise and I want to support that talent to achieve its full potential. It takes time to build a movement – but we are in a moment in time like no other and l am eager to contribute to advancing our shared vision of building a more sustainable, resilient and equitable world.
Q: What is an area where York is leading in sustainability?
A: I think one of York’s strengths in sustainability is how it has advanced partnerships to advance sustainability goals. York has a demonstrated commitment to local and international partnerships to advance sustainability. It is something we can be proud of and something we can build upon.