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I am a huge advocate of peer-to-peer learning and networking in communities and between community groups.

It’s the place where people are able to speak frankly about their ideas, as well as any challenges they have faced, with people like them.

I recently realised how important it is for me to keep up with my own peer networks, so that I can keep learning and exploring in safe environment: I find it enables me to lift my head upwards and look outwards.

In June I was invited by the German Marshall Fund of the United States to speak at an international event in Bilbao, Spain.

The congress brought people together from cities across the USA and Europe to talk about their experiences of urban transformation.

Keen to share the work of CDF, and the grassroots groups we support, with a new audience, I went prepared to talk about the approaches we take in the UK which pass money and decision-making to local people regardless of where they live, seen in programmes like our own Community First and he Local Trust-led Big Local.

Equity – just and fair inclusion

The central theme of the three-day event was ‘equity’, which was described as ‘just and fair inclusion’.

With an audience comprising architects, planners, academics, officials, non-profits and funders it was satisfying that this is now an accepted principle, rather than a theoretical notion for any place-based regeneration.

In my session, I set out the UK context, stressing that before we talk about successful method of participation, we must think hard about the means to participate.

Equity means having financial security and freedom to participate for example, the ability to travel or to work.

But what I learnt through the discussion that followed extended beyond my ability to talk about our UK approach.

How cities are benefiting from immigration

One of the hot topics discussed was immigration. I gained new insights into how this can extend beyond the debate played out in the British media between overstretched national resources versus enhancing under-resourced skills in businesses.

It became clear to me that places which do well see a mixed and thriving ethnic community as the natural marketing route for trade.

The more nations represented in an area, the more likely products and services are designed for and reach international markets.

It also helps with the ‘welcome mat’ which needs to be rolled out for trade and visitor markets; the more apparent the diversity of a city and its accessibility via breadth of language, the more likely a productive relationship will develop.

London was often cited as a great example of this – perhaps a message to other UK cities to positively promote and encourage diversity as a means to economic growth.

In one discussion the Toronto effect was described; Toronto is the most ethnically diverse city in the world, with no majority ethnicity.

It is seen as the place for start-ups; if you want to launch a product you have to go to Toronto.

Apparently Facebook really went global after it reached the city, capitalising on its multi-ethnic international networks.

The benefits of cross-city dialogue

Cross-city dialogue enables these peer-to-peer exchanges to take place more regularly and candidly than inter-nation political exchanges might.

And Bilbao’s a fantastic, transformed city in which to do this. Its growing success extends far beyond the iconic Guggenheim art gallery, looking like a giant-sized crushed metal can, wedged between buildings old and the new.

It’s a city of brave visual statements and with aspiration which extends to all of its citizens.

It’s a city which is able to invest in mixed housing, public spaces, businesses, sport, art and culture in liberal measure due its devolved financial arrangements which enables it to retain 90% of its local taxes.

And it’s a city that is both a place to learn from and a place to aspire to.

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