Gelsenkirchen − A Learning City

Gelsenkirchen recognised the potential of education for sustainable development (ESD) early on. In 1997, local politicians unanimously declared the city's own Agenda 21 and set up the so-called"'aGEnda 21 office".

by Nadine Thunecke, translated by Chris Baudy

An artful graphic showing the project

Stadt Gelsenkirchen, Künstler: Jesse Krauß

Education for a better world

For 17 years now, the aGEnda 21 office team has engaged Gelsenkirchen's residents in shaping a liveable local future. They act in accordance with the concept of ESD and the guiding principle: "Think global − act local". This also requires the inclusion of the locals in the process of sustainable urban planning and the development of pedagogical activities. The aim is to combine sustainable education provision with preventative measures. A special education and participation programme allows children from low-income families, for instance, to take part in study trips or to join a club. Education is key to fighting poverty.

"ESD for a better local and global world only works with the local people", explains Werner Rybarski, head of Gelsenkirchen's aGEnda 21 office. He also conceives of education as the key to participating in decision-making processes and to reducing poverty. "If the world is to become a sustainable community, we need an inclusive education at the local level which reaches out to everyone."

Consequently, Gelsenkirchen focused on education from the very start of the local Agenda 21 initiative – by that time, the concept of ESD had not existed yet. The start of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development gave Gelsenkirchen's educational work a more systematic impetus and a greater impact. "At that time we discovered that for years all our groups had provided ESD for adults. Finally, we had a name for it", Rybarski remembers.

ESD guides Gelsenkirchen

In 2016, the city council passed a resolution to join the Agenda 2030 – making Gelsenkirchen the first German city to do so. Then the project "Coordination of Communal Development Policies" was launched in 2017. The aim here is to align the entire community work in Gelsenkirchen to the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs).

Additionally, Gelsenkirchen participates in the nationwide competition on "Future Town" run by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. They successfully entered the second phase (next to 19 other German cities) with their concept of a "Learning City! − Education and Participation for Strategic Socio-spatial Development". Furthermore, Gelsenkirchen will receive the UNESCO Learning City Award 2017, which honours towns and cities for their sustainable educational and lifelong learning achievements. In so doing, the city wants the local population to participate in developing and supporting fair and inclusive educational measures. First, educators, representatives of the local parliament and the administration as well as other institutions agreed on common fields of action and recommendations for the entire local education sector. Then civil society activists became part of the process in order to contribute to the design of sustainable realisation measures in all areas of life as well as with respect to urban development and to support the collaboration between actors in the region.

"Participation should be seen as taking on an active role", explains Rybarski. The creative workshops offer children's activities that have ESD firmly integrated into their educational programme. Furthermore, Gelsenkirchen’s adult education centre (VHS) is the first nationwide educational provider with an ESD syllabus for adults − since 2013. Between then and now, the procurement, too, went sustainable. For many years now, Gelsenkirchen has purchased eco-friendly and fair produced materials – one reason, why the city was repeatedly awarded the German title of "Fair Trade Town".

Projects for the citizens

A very important factor for the success of the educational activities was the build-up of a viable network structure. "This works particularly well in Gelsenkirchen because private and public educators collaborate in a highly productive manner", states Rybarski. Thus, quite a few ESD projects can be jointly realised. With the help of various training modules, mentoring programmes and practical project work, College21 (Kolleg21), for example, qualifies people between their university studies and subsequent jobs in all areas of sustainable development as well as project management.

According to Rybarski, the reason why these education projects are so successful is that the residents are highly committed to the course. "In spite of the difficult budget situation, Gelsenkirchen possesses a huge potential to carry out projects with a direct impact on the locals. And this is the result of great involvement and true passion." Naturally, the aGEnda 21 office has had a big share in the success story. For 17 years now, the team has initiated ESD projects and established the network.

Rybarski points out that next to project work, informal learning plays a vital role in ESD, too. "There are many competencies for sustainable urban planning that emerge in informal learning spheres via action-based learning and social interaction." In this context, non-formal education institutions play a central role here. They are the direct link between the neighbourhoods and the formal institutions.

The city informs politicians, the administration and the public about the projects on a regular basis to ensure the quality of the work. From 2010 to 2013, Gelsenkirchen also took part in "QuaSi BNE" (Quality Assurance in ESD), a project sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). In connection with the "Future Town" competition, the Free University of Berlin supervises Gelsenkirchen's realisation of the "Learning City" concept. One of the city's next steps in this context will be the preparation of a Gelsenkirchen Sustainability Report.

Assuming responsibility for the youth

A highly important target group of the ESD activities are the young people living in Gelsenkirchen. They are future decision-makers. Hence, educators have a specific interest in them. Accordingly, the aGEnda work has focused on youth education since 2011. Young people may join, for instance, the Youth Involvement Working Group (AG jung-engagiert!) or contribute to "jez − junge engagierte zeitung", a newspaper for the committed young. Moreover, Gelsenkirchen hosted the first One World Youth Conference, which led to the set-up of project and working groups. Moreover, Gelsenkirchen hosted the first One World Youth Conference, which led to the set-up of project groups and working groups. Finally, young people announced their first "Sustainable City Youth Declaration".

Simple steps towards ESD

With respect to the implementation of ESD, Gelsenkirchen serves as a good example for other cities and communities. Having themselves had a humble start, Werner Rybarski has plenty of advice on how to develop ESD activities step-by-step: "Communities wishing to orientate their educational endeavours towards the concept of ESD should not be put off by the seeming mass of new things that need to be done. Rather, try to find out which of the already existing activities and measures comply with ESD standards. A simple sketch on wallpaper will do to show the connections between individual projects. Also, don't think in ecological terms only. There is a lot going on in the social sector and more often than not one can change most of it painlessly into ESD projects."


  • Securing long-term funding
  • Building a viable network

Conditions for success

  • Support from the city council
    • ESD as the guiding principle for Gelsenkirchen
  • Agreement on common fields of action and recommendations from educators, representatives of the local parliament and administration as well as other institutions
  • The exchange between all civil-society stakeholders in order to (i) achieve the joint design of sustainable realisation measures in all areas of life as well as with respect to urban development and (ii) support the collaboration of stakeholders in the region
  • Partnerships with non-formal education institutions as the direct link between the neighbourhoods and formal institutions

Contact details

aGEnda 21 Buero

Von-Oven-Str. 19
45879 Gelsenkirchen
T +49 209 1479130

Further Informations


aGEnda 21 office (English)